Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Serenity) is a Jiu-Jitsu instructor who believes in pure Jiu-Jitsu, and cares deeply about teaching it and his mantra of “there is an escape out of every situation” to the students he is equally committed to. The only problem is that these deeply held beliefs-including the maxim that competition is a distraction that weakens the fighter-are not exactly making his studio a success. Terry’s wife Sondra (Alice Braga, Predators), is carrying Terry’s dojo with her thriving dress making and fabric importing business. Sondra’s brother (Rodrigo Santoro, 300) is heavily involved in UFC-style MMA fight promotion. Through a strange (and increasingly obviously manipulated) series of coincidences, Mike meets movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen, Toy Story 3), a traumatized lawyer (Emily Mortimer, Shutter Island), a magician (Cyril Takayam), a fight promoter (Ricky Jay, Tomorrow Never Dies), a loan shark (David Paymer, Payback), Chet Frank’s slick agent (Joe Mantegna, The Money Pit ) and his wife (Jennifer Grey, Red Dawn). The situations these players set in motion hurt Terry’s reputation, damage his studio, and put one of his students, Officer Joe (Max Martini, Contact) in a terrible position. Terry has to choose between participating in the impure world of prize fighting and getting the money he needs to fix all of the problems his manipulators have created and his own unyielding sense of what’s right.
Redbelt received a lot of buzz as a good film that slipped under the radar, and it is not entirely undeserved. David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross), the screenwriter and playwright known for his dialog, characters and twist and double cross laden plots might seem an odd filmmaker to be making what is essentially an old fashioned boxing or wrestling picture, but it is not as unlikely as it might seem. First, this is hardly the first film to feature this conflict between the purity of a martial art versus crass promotional gimmicks (one might argue that even Rocky has elements of this conflict, with a schlub of a fighter squaring off against a showboat), or even the first to combine that with a crime film. Night and the City, from Jules Dassin, is a clear precursor to Redbelt, with Richard Widmark’s sleazy small time hood duping a simple minded but legendary wrestler who believes in honorable matches and the beauty of his art into allowing his son to square off with an animal named The Strangler. Mamet shifts attention away from the cons and onto the fighter and makes Terry less of a sad but noble figure and more of a typical protagonist. Second, Mamet uses the vehicle of Terry’s naivete to explore questions of honor vs. survival, whether any competition is ever real (indeed, if anything we see is real) and to trot out the usual character actors and on-the-make characters.
The film is at its best when following Terry, and especially when in his gym, which is soaking in so much verisimilitude it’s as if Mamet plopped his cameras right down in my last dojo. Ejofor carries himself well, and, in most ways, is an ideal Sensei-intimidating and driven enough to challenge you, but caring enough to do what’s best for his students-at least until he encounters Mametian grifters. The fight scenes are excellent, with that same feeling of realism. Most of the performances are good, although the Mamet regulars are somewhat on autopilot, and, indeed, once the twists and character revelations pile on, it becomes difficult to take the film very seriously. When Terry discovers one last layer of deception, the film goes off the rails, and it is unclear if the ending we see is genuine or another trick by the film’s master manipulators, although, in either case, the resolution does not feel honest. Mamet uses so much smoke and so many mirrors that the film squanders the sense of reality it created, and we are left with the usual paranoid questions of exactly who was involved in the plot and how deeply, as well as doubts as to whether Mamet is serious. Another weakness of the film is just how much it traffics in quick, easy stereotypes and stock situations. Mamet is toying with the elements of fight movies, but Redbelt would benefit from a little more cohesion, a little less transparent sleight-of-hand, and less paranoia. Martial arts fans and practitioners who value competition and feel it has a place in their arts may find the triumph of Terry’s beliefs irritating, but anyone who feels the way Terry does should enjoy the film fully. Worth a look for Mamet or martial arts/fight film fans looking for a change of pace.