Redbelt (2008) dir. David Mamet
Starring: Chiwetal Ejiofor, Emily Mortimer, Tim Allen, Ricky Jay, Joe Mantagna
One of the best films of the year is David Mamet’s “Redbelt” – part con film, part sports film. It’s always fascinating, evolving and unpredictable. It’s a unique hybrid film combining Mamet’s fascination with mind games and deception with some traditional structure of the classic sports genre.
Though it’s not the first film to showcase Mixed Martial Arts as its central concept, it’s by far the best, and I doubt there will be any better. It turns out that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mamet and badass of the Chicago theatre scene has a brown belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. His dedication and passion to the sport translates on screen as he delivers one of the best sports films in recent years, and in my opinion his best film as director.
It’s a fascinating set up. Laura Black (Emily Mortimer) an attorney is driving erratically at night, she accidentally hits Mike Terry’s car (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is teaching a jiu jistu class in his studio. When she walks in she’s on edge and after a series of small events accidentally grabs an off duty police officer’s gun and shoots out Mike’s store window.
Mike’s wife is angered because they now have to pay for the window with money they don’t have. This event, so accidental, is the beginning of a journey of a survival for Terry. Along the way a Hollywood star and director ingratiate him into their world. But when things are looking up they easily crash down, which forces Mike to make decisions which challenge his personal ethics and beliefs about fighting and jiu jitsu. Mamet is careful to drop this other shoe, and it all unfolds masterfully.
As expected Mamet crafts some wonderful dialogue. It’s largely bereft of his showy profane laden Glengarry Glen Ross style. At times the actors deliver their lines in this familiar voice, but Mamet tailors his dialogue to the characters. Mike Terry is first a student of the discipline of Jiu Jitsu and honourable and idealistic to the core. Terry is full of Sun Tzu-like philosophies, “A man distracted is a man defeated“ and “There is no situation you could not escape from.” Ejiofor expresses these lines with honour, integrity and believability. But nice guys finish last right? So we know his morals will get compromised somehow.
So can we start talking about Chiwetel Ejiofor as one of the best actors in Hollywood now? Well, he’s British of course, but he’s being cast by just about everyone in every kind of role.
Mamet is also an expert at skewering Hollywood as well (“Wag the Dog”, “State and Main”) and there’s a running theme of the corruption of the art by the television industry which has made MMA such a success. MMA owner Dana White has a featured interview on the DVD Special Features and legendary fighter Randy Couture has a role, yet, ironically Mamet is clear to show how sanctioned rules, fame and money easily and quickly corrupts the philosophy and grounded ideals of the art. This is the inner conflict for Mike. No one expounds or confesses these ideas in a speech, it’s subtly fed to us through background dialogue, nameless unimportant characters and throwaway lines. And so, after the problems compound on Mike and he’s forced to make his decision, we understand the weight of his choice.
“Redbelt” gets a little sloppy in the end as it wraps up its subplots. And the tone of climax may divide some audiences. It moves closer to genre than what we would expect from the first half. But in a movie about fighting it’s inevitable that the film would come down a fight. Thank you though David Mamet for not making the audience applaud. “Redbelt” is a great film. Enjoy.
Check out the Sony Pictures Blu-Ray edition which showcase’s Robert Elswit’s pristine cinematography.