(USA - 2008)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Emily Mortimer, Max Martini, Alice Braga, Joe Montegna, Ricky Jay, Tim Allen, Randy Couture, John Machado, Enson Inoue
Genre: Action/Martial Arts/Film Noir/Mystery/Drama
Director: David Mamet
Screenplay: David Mamet
Cinematography: Robert Elswit
Composer: Stephen Endelman

The accepted strong suit of David Mamet’s work is obviously his dialogue. The backbone of so many great successes on stage, his prose is what had people clamoring to see his talent put to use on the big screen. However, as great as his writing is, I’d suggest the greatest strength of his directorial efforts is his ability to instill the air of mystery and befuddlement that makes well worn genre tales seem fresh and unpredictable.

Mamet doesn’t explain his characters or his plot, the mystery rendering additional intrigue which is sustained by his masterful ability to make each reveal add questions, put at least a layer back in the mystery rather than simply bringing us closer to the core. The primary reason Mamet’s films don’t seem formulaic is, even though you basically know the destination, there’s enough possibilities and duplicities to make each step in the journey surprising.

One certainly can’t go wrong with Things Change, Homicide, Oleanna, or The Spanish Prisoner, but Redbelt is my favorite Mamet since his brilliant 1987 debut House of Games. Though in essence a simply hero myth action film, it’s also, among other things, a classic Mamet con artist movie where no one and nothing can be guaranteed to be what they seem. Part of the brilliance of Redbelt, which follows in the tradition of his movies that feel much different than they are, is key aspects such as the con are a means to the end rather than the whole story.

Mamet’s work breeds and feeds a certain paranoia that all the characters might be secretly setting up the mark. It’s certainly stoked by the noirish tinges, but Mamet’s choice to mix magicians with his con artists yields a different tone. Generally, we’d consider the grifters to be devious individuals (if they weren’t the heroes), but it can be as much about getting what you want as monetary gain; it’s more a game where proving your superiority is the ultimate, and, of course, the prize can be a nice reward.

Redbelt is the first Brazilian jiu-jitsu based MMA film, but at it’s heart lies the classic lonely but noble samurai who does what he believes is right regardless of his own needs or best interest. He’s not in it to gain any sort of tangible prize, but rather to maintain his integrity. Mike Terry (Chiwitel Ejiofor) is a very consistent character, a simple and straightforward man who does what he believes is logical and just. However, in the 21st century, such a code of conduct puts the honorable martial artist at odds with the rest of humanity, a group of shaded and potentially shady characters who generally allow money to dictate their life.

Terry is an old time hero, which is refreshing in 2008 in part because Mamet isn’t cynical about him. Even though the art is celebrated, MMA is the chosen spectacle, controlled by one of Mamet’s favorite objects of derision, the producer who chooses money at the price of virtuosity and honor. This spiritual and soulful character is a genuine individual. Chiwetel Ejiofor does an excellent job of portraying him through restraint; his stillness and quiet solitude allow his humanity to show through. He won’t get any bogus awards because the performance lies solely in what he doesn’t do, but this is one of the best acting turns of 2008.

As in such films as House of Games and Homicide, Mamet’s hero is driven by the need to uphold his integrity. Terry has found purity in the controlled environment of his jiu-jitsu academy, but it’s difficult to extend that to the vast and unpredictable real world. His wife Sondra (Alice Braga, niece of the legendary Sonia) is certainly no help in this regard. She comes from a family of successful businessmen, and runs a profitable business herself in between funneling her money into Mike’s business to try to keep it afloat. It’s obvious she’ll never understand Mike, but his quest is about understanding himself, realizing purity can’t be sought out but rather must be unearthed from deep in your soul.

I generally dislike modern fighting movies as they are nothing but post-production chicanery. The fight choreography and stunt team has been replaced by cutting enough detached and meaningless tight shots together at warp speed to create an incoherent mess where even a bogus martial artist such as Keanu Reeves may seem an excellent one. I also tend to dislike the sports scenes in movies because they look like a bored child’s idea of how to make a sport they hate interesting. Rather than resembling the real game, it’s a concoction of illegal, impossible, at best once in a lifetime plays with football having more lariats and back body drops than pro wrestling. I’m happy to report the fighting in Redbelt is fairly credible. A high school wrestler who has trained in boxing, kung fu, and is currently a BJJ purple belt under Pan-Am champ Renato Magno, Mamet has not only brought his own knowledge of the arts, but also recruited members of the two legendary BJJ families – the Gracies and the Machados – to help, with the Gracies training Ejiofor and the Machados choreographing the fights.

Though Olympic wrestling alternate Randy Couture announces and 1987 NCAA national wrestling champion Rico Chiapparelli choreographs his fight with John Machado, there’s little evidence of the wrestling side of MMA on display, instead opting for rarer but far more exciting judo throws to get the fight to the canvas. The technique of all the fights is rock solid, but it’s more a demonstration of the flashy maneuvers you could use on an untrained opponent than the sort of moves you’d have a lot of success trying on a fellow blackbelt. With this in mind, the bar fight is by far the most credible, while the John Machado vs. Chiapparelli tournament bout is condensed into the sort of rapid fire barrage of throws and submissions that only Karo Parisyan’s career highlight film could compete with. Still, everything looks great and I’d rate these as the best fight scenes of the year, with a nice mixture of well choreographed strikes and essentially real throws and submissions that blow away the usual hocus pocus. Maintaining the realist bend, Mamet once again eschews the usual brand of cinematic cheesiness where a dissolve miraculously makes someone disappear and instead employs a real life magician who simply does the magic act he’d do at a live show for the camera.

The basic problem with Redbelt is it seems to exist in a time warp. There’s only one MMA league promoting shows under a no guaranteed money tournament format. It’s essentially the early UFC, taking the Bob Meyorwitz style freak show to a new level of gimmickry. The events contrive to rehash the tired great master is forced to fight plot, but if Terry was so respected he’s deemed worthy of the redbelt, - the holy grail of all honors, a 10th degree blackbelt awarded to the one super grand master - his reputation would be making him hundreds of thousands of dollars simply training others. To show you how hard it is to earn the redbelt, it’s still Helio Gracie, who along with his brother Carlos modified the Japanese art into what’s now known as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and Helio was born in 1913!

Even before there was money in martial arts fights, big names with bigger bank accounts would gravitate to the masters. For instance, Bruce Lee trained Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Chuck Norris (after he’d already won the World Middleweight Karate Championship), Roman Polanski, & James Garner. Even if Terry was the worst businessman in history, the idea he’d have an empty gym and be looking to train whatever disturbed trigger happy chick that happened to shoot a hole through his window is ludicrous. Terry wouldn’t need to fight because he’d be turning away pro fighters with good credentials.

If Mike did have the desire to prove himself by challenging the other top fighters like the Gracie’s did (before there were sanctioned fights, after they tended to hide, make excuses about refs time limits and decisions, and name an asking price that was more ridiculous than a Scott Boras fever dream) rather than believing competition is weakening because it’s not a fight, it’s unimaginable that he couldn’t at least get a six figure deal that didn’t hinge on him actually winning, similar to what the winner and sometimes even runner up of UFC’s The Ultimate Fighter gets. A better comparison is to the legendary Rickson Gracie, who won a couple of remedial Vale Tudo Japan tournaments in the mid 1990’s, but essentially got 7 figure range paydays in 1997 and 1998 against Nobuhiko Takada and in 2000 against Masakatsu Funaki on reputation and mystique.

Once we get into the arena, we are treated to more of Mamet’s 1993 disconnect through the gimmick of one fighter contesting an MMA match with a handicap. It’s true there are a few handicapped fighters currently in MMA – Matt Hamill is deaf, Tra Telligman has 1 bicep, and Kevin Burns has broken his hand so many times he eye gouges more than Moe Howard because he can no longer throw a closed fist. I suppose the inspiration could be Redbelt’s fight choreographer Jean Jacques Machado, the most famous member of the clan, who has won countless top level BJJ and Abu Dhabi submission wrestling championships despite being born with only a thumb and finger on his left hand. That being said, Redbelt is more deeply immersed in the sort of myth that tells us Jean-Claude Van Damme can beat Tong Po even if he’s temporarily blinded.

In the original no weight class jiu jitsu is better than kickboxing and kung fu is better than boxing concept of MMA, the boxer might still lose to a one-armed man, but with constant cross training ruling the sport in the 2000s, even the worst fighters are more or less passable in a handful of disciplines. Thus, the stricter gimmicks of fighting blindfolded or with both arms bound would give that fighter no chance of winning, and a one-armed man would basically need an egregious error or one lucky shut. Granted, a good portion of Mamet’s point here is the gimmick is a way of fixing the fight without asking someone to take a dive. I thought the pitiful opposition ridiculously pushed one-dimensional newbies such as Kimbo Slice and Brian Stann got was essentially the equivalent without the gimmick to lessen their “big victories”, but obviously I’m not always right.

There’s plenty of loose cannon blackbelts, but in Redbelt I feel Mamet straying from the typical martial arts movie plot where the top protege has all the skill but doesn’t get over the top until he gains the discipline clashes with Mike’s character. The crux of Terry’s teachings seems to be “you control yourself, you control him”, but he gives a blackbelt to a hothead cop (Max Martini) who can’t control his emotions during the blackbelt test to the point he’s ready to take his friend and training partner out. In the end, what’s here is quite good, but Mamet definitely contrives a lot to move the story in the directions he chooses. I feel he could have made an ever better movie if I didn’t have to write several things off to being just a movie, but it’s a huge step up, or should I say back, after the rather feeble kidnapping caper known as Spartan.



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