If you know your Mamet you can watch 'Redbelt' for the significant ways in which it's un-Mamet-like and it will be more enjoyable. If you don't know your Mamet, you're likely to find it just as baffling and off-putting as 'Heist,' 'Spartan,' 'The Spanish Prisoner,' etc., because the plot still moves forward, especially at the beginning, by a series of baffling twists. (It pays to keep coming back.) Mamet's dialog with its pauses and repetitions and non-sequiturs is so famously mannered and self-conscious you can picture it on the page of script even as the actors speak it. Such artificiality works better in principle on stage. The greater issue when Mamet writes and directs his own movie is the story line. His plot twists are so purely clever, so completely arbitrary, it's hard to take them seriously. The result is enjoyable in a head-trip kind of way, but ultimately cold and uninvolving. As David Edelstein says in his nonetheless favorable review of 'Redbelt,' its plot is "so bizarrely convoluted it barely holds together on a narrative level." Maybe Edelstein's right that this is typical of fight movies; it's even more typical of Mamet. His double-crosses, often involving Hollywood people and crooked promoters, are more rapid-fire and intricate than the usual genre equivalents. But coming after the cold blur of Mamet's 2004 'Spartan,' 'Redbelt' seems unusually fresh and strong. Some have just attributed this to Mamet's doing a "noir," a "prize fight story," even a "Rocky," with "mixed martial arts" (jujitsu really) the updated replacement of boxing--and this time not even getting in the way of the (for him) new genre. But I think the important difference is Mamet's departure not from previous genres or the conventions of this one, but from his usual cynicism, which makes the ending far less routine and mechanical than 'Spartan's,' less cold and clever than any of his previous endings were. Genre elements are still definitely there. You can see 'Redbelt,' for a while anyway, as a grownup 'Karate Kid', with Chiwetel Ejiofor the Mr. Miyagi and a cop named Joey his Daniel-san. There are two interpretations of this comparison. Either the dip into old fashioned B-picture structures makes 'Redbelt' a winner, more forceful and accessible than Mamet's usual hide-and-seek bluffs. Or the Mamet mannerisms are absurd in an otherwise conventional action setting and it's a flop. (Those who complain the fights aren't specific enough are surely missing how well the passive, defensive methods of jujitsu are defined and illustrated in the film early on so they can be appreciated later.) The skeleton of the fight story trajectory is unquestionably there, but with a difference. The movie (apparently) ends with a big staged public competition surrounded by the paraphernalia of audience and promotion and suspense about outcome. Like an old-style boxing flick the movie refers to gambling, fixed fights, payoffs, prizes. But first of all this isn't about boxing--"Boxing's dead," one of the promoters says--and Mamet even takes a lot of personal pleasure in working with this different sport, using his own knowledge from five years of training in it. But more than that, the difference in the sport and the hero's dedication to it significantly change the framework and the ending. Unlike just any conventional athlete, Mike Terry (Ejiofor) practices and teaches a Brazilian form of jujitsu--his wife Sondra (Alice Braga) is Brazilian--and therefore follows the Bushido code. This is not only not boxing. It's a philosophy, and as we know, its focus is not winning a staged contest but triumphing over any enemy in a conflict. 'Redbelt' is a martial arts movie with a hero who succeeds to the end in staying outside any system. Mike never intends to and does not participate in a promoted public fight (though Mamet just barely dodges that--with his usual slickness in plot twists). This is where Mamet completely deviates from his usual world of one cynical double-cross after another. Unlike the underdog, Mike has nothing to prove. His dojo is financially unsuccessful not because he's some kind of hitherto floundering loser but simply because he is--he must be--indifferent to money. He is in peak condition and never loses, but when he triumphs it's only to make a point, not prove himself. This may link him with Mr. Miyagi. But unlike Miyagi, Mike fights, and defeats, a lot of people on-screen. This is so much an action movie and Ejiofor is so convincing that the dialog very rarely sounds mannered this time. If you understand what Mamet's doing and how that's different this time from both Mamet's routines and the sports genre film, the ending ins't hasty or confused so much as emotionally satisfying and right. If you insist, you can say it's just 'Rocky' for grownups who like Eastern philosophy; but that's something awfully new for this writer/director. As usual for Mamet, 'Redbelt' isn't realistic. But this time he isn't just being clever: the movie leads not to "Ah ha!" but simply a satisfied "Ah!" This time Mamet doesn't give us a manipulated character who does or doesn't survive: he gives us a real hero. This is where the excellent Ejiofor is so essential and so cool. Mike is a character Mamet never conceived before--and a hero more convincing in his iron resiliency than is usual, thanks to the calm intensity and inner peace the actor effortlessly projects. There are plenty of other reasons in the cast for being happy. Everyone is unusually good and those characters who seem cheap and slick are that way because they're from the world of cheap and slick people. Those who come closer to Mike Terry like his wife and the initially dodgy woman lawyer Laura Black (Emily Mortimer) who becomes his partner in conflict, and his black belt, Joe Ryan (Max Martini) are thoroughly warm and convincing.
Drama / Sport
Drama / Sport
A fateful event leads to a job in the film business for top mixed-martial arts instructor Mike Terry. Though he refuses to participate in prize bouts, circumstances conspire to force him to consider entering such a competition.
October 27, 2020