Thursday, May 8, 2008
As I have made clear in the past, I am an action junkie. The trailers for Redbelt made it look like an action film, with a mixed martial arts fight tournament at its center. So I was excited, an action film by David Mamet! Well there are two things to learn from this: one, don't always believe the ads, and two, Mamet never delivers the expected. So Redbelt poses as an action film but delivers what I would call an anti-action action picture. And by not delivering on expectations, Mamet satisfied me with something else, something much more clever.
David Mamet directing in the ring for Redbelt (Sony Pictures Classics)
Mamet insists in the press materials that Redbelt is "not a martial arts movie." Instead, he says his film looks to themes honor and respect through the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and the fast-growing sport of mixed martial arts. Mamet began studying Jiu-Jitsu five years ago and quickly developed a passion for it. He had been a high school wrestler and had boxed and practiced kung fu before studying Jiu-Jitsu with Renato Magno, who now serves as fight choreographer on Redbelt . The idea that they both wanted to get across in the film is that Jiu-Jitsu is based on the idea that understanding will defeat strength: "Don't use more force than you need to; knowledge will conquer force." To convey this idea, they give us Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a martial arts instructor in Los Angeles.
Tim Allen plays an action star who's about to get a beating in Redbelt (Sony Pictures Classics)
Terry runs what you might call an honorable but not too glamorous nor too successful school. He preaches that there is "no situation you cannot escape from" and to "control your emotions." Terry controls his emotions and for the most part the situations he gets into. Then a series of events complicate his life. He rescues Chet Frank (Tim Allen), an action star who gets in over his head in a bar fight, and is invited to a film set. He offers some input on the action. But Terry is a straight talker and a person who does not assume ulterior motives in anyone. The Hollywood folks, however, are a different breed. Terry's out of his element and it takes him awhile to realize that. So Terry ends up getting scammed and getting pulled into a big mixed martial arts tournament. But competing goes against all that Terry believes in. So what it all comes down to is, can Terry escape from this situation without compromising his beliefs?
Redbelt sets you up for a tournament style fight film and then denies you the satisfaction of getting it in conventional terms. Instead you get & a resolution that satisfies you based on the principles that Terry has outlined. So this isn't a martial arts film in the vein of say Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee but it is a martial arts movie in terms of looking at the sport and examining its philosophy and discipline, something which many Asian martial arts films have worked into their stories (most recently, Fearless ). Now Mamet and the studio are eager to have us believe that this is the first mixed martial arts (MMA) film "ever." But Jackie Chan mixed it up a bit in the Big Brawl, so did Chuck Norris. More recently Donnie Yen mixed boxing, kung fu, muy Thai and more in Flash Point , while the silly Never Back Down served up a teen Hollywood example of mixed martial arts fighting. So while Mamet may serve up a more dramatically satisfying use of MMA, but he's certainly not the complete innovator that the press materials would like us to believe.
That being said, Mamet makes good use of the fights in the film. Each person's fighting style reveals something about him or her. Terry is all about poise and control, he's a thinking fighter. A local cop in his class lets emotions overtake him and that proves to be his downfall. Chet Frank's style reveals a mix of arrogance, self-hate and celebrity stupidity. He can get into fights because somewhere he's thinking that a bodyguard or some other person with come to his rescue. For all these characters, how they fight is key to who they are and how they define themselves. When the story enters the actual fight world, Terry is appalled at how much of it is rigged. In a brilliant scene that's pure Mamet, Ricky Jay plays a fight promoter who explains that you need a story to sell a fight otherwise it's two monkeys in a ring. So the "story" they come up with involves a Japanese fighter, a famous championship belt and a question of honor. All of which Terry finds offensive because it's all a scam. The story that Jay's character comes up with is, in many ways, the story that sells Mamet's film as well.
Ricky Jay as a fight promoter who says you need to tell a story to sell a fight (Sony Pictures Classics)
Ejiofor is perfectly cast as Terry. He has a sense of calm and poise that sums up Terry's character. With Ejiofor, you can see him thinking and assessing a situation. He gives Terry dignity and integrity that feels tangible. Allen should thank Mamet for giving him the first role of his career that has actually required him to act, and he's credible as an obnoxious celebrity. Mamet regulars Jay and Joe Mantegna are great in slick but rather slimy roles. As for the women, Alice Braga hides a surprisingly hard edge as Terry's wife, and Emily Mortimer plays a skittish lawyer trying to overcome her fears after a rape and assault. Both women hold their own as they serve up contrasts to Terry.
For someone famed for his dialogue, Mamet keeps the speaking to a minimum. There are flurries of intense dialogue but also long passages without any dialogue at all. The intense and percussive drums define the cadence of the film much in the same way that Mamet's dialogue usually does. There is a lot more going on visually in this film than there often is in a Mamet film. And this one harkens back to a lot of old American fight films about underdogs and rigged events. Films such as The Set Up, Champion and Body and Soul quickly come to mind. Ejiofor's Terry is a classic strong, silent hero with an almost old fashioned sense of honor and morality.
Redbelt (rated R for strong language) is a superb example of Mamet's filmmaking. But be careful of the expectations you form before going in to see this film. If the trailer has you dead set on an MMA fight tournament with extensive footage in the ring, forget it. But if you're willing to be surprised, go out and see this film. It's a film that's smartly anchored by Ejiofor's elegant performance.
Companion viewing: The Set Up, Body and Soul, Champion, Flashpoint