Sunday, 1 January 2012
Redbelt (2008) dir. David Mamet
Starring: Chiwetal Ejiofor, Emily Mortimer, Tim Allen, Ricky Jay, Joe Mantagna
By Alan Bacchus
One of the best films of 2008 was David Mamet’s Redbelt – part con film, part sports film. It’s always fascinating, evolving and unpredictable. Redbelt is a unique hybrid film combining Mamet’s fascination with mind games and deception with some traditional structure from 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) is an attorney who is driving erratically at night. She accidentally hits the car owned by Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is teaching a Jiu-Jitsu class in his studio. When she walks into the studio she’s on edge, and after a series of small events she 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 survival for Mike. 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 that 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. He is full of Sun Tzu-like philosophies, including, “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.
Mamet is also an expert at skewering Hollywood (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 feature 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 corrupt 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. Instead, 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 the climax may divide some audiences. It moves closer to a genre film than we might expect based on the first half. However, in a movie about fighting it’s inevitable that it would come down to a fight in the end. But thank you David Mamet for not making the audience applaud. Redbelt is a great film. Enjoy.