REVIEW: Redbelt [2008]

“There’s always an escape”

David Mamet is back with his new film Redbelt. After four years away from Hollywood, producing the television show “The Unit,” Mamet has followed up his solid thriller Spartan with a drama of intelligence that only he can capture. Complete with the trademark, metered language—every word timed and delivered with precision—this tale may be billed as a mixed martial arts actioner, but it is so much more. The sport itself lends heavily to the plot for sure, but rather than with its moves and choreography, it is the underlying sense of honor that becomes the central focus. Beginning as a straight-forward drama of faith and morality, culminating into what appears to be this Jiu-Jitsu instructor’s big chance at success and wealth to keep his fledgling gym in business, Mamet’s story soon gets the rug pulled out from under it, fast and hard. I will admit to not having expected the sharp turn of events halfway through as everything Mike Terry has built his life upon ends up leading to his demise, eventually finding him on the edge of throwing all he believes in away forever. A film of respect and sacrifice, greed and deceit, Redbelt goes places you will not be ready for, yet it is handled deftly, causing all the machinations to fall into place and show their true worth in the progression of the story. It all happens for a reason; life sometimes deals you pain and leaves you in a choke hold about to lose air, but as Terry tells his students, there is always an escape.

I don’t want to ruin anything with this film, because truthfully it caught me off-guard. Maybe the turn was hinted in the trailer, I don’t remember, but it is better to go in following the plot threads and watching it all unravel. With that said, I do have a problem with the ending. Not so much the tone and end result, but in the way it all transpires. I believe it is a perfect conclusion if not played out too easily without explaining the motivations behind two Jiu-Jitsu champions and their actions. To do what they do, it would almost mean they knew what was going on with the tournament, that they knew what Terry was about to tell the world before he spoke … I just don’t see how that can be true. Maybe Mamet just wanted to stick to a minimalist approach and allow it all to occur in sequence, and it is a powerful progression, it’s just filled with that one problem which could have possibly been rectified, but maybe it was and I missed it. I don’t want to accuse the filmmaker of a plot-hole if he actually did cover it up, I just can’t remember it happening. It’s the one blight on an otherwise stellar film.

The script is a huge part of the success and really that is where Mamet either flourishes or fails. At times he can be too cute or too overwrought, but at other instances he can be at the top of the industry. I generally find his smaller works, based off his own plays, as his best work, but this one is definitely on par. The ability to take us on this journey with two halves of good times and the fall from them is a feat that usually fails due to contrivances and blatant tells. Maybe I was tired or just too caught up in the acting and fight sequences, but it really surprised me in a good way; I didn’t see it coming at all.

Credit should go to the performers too for keeping their end of the game high quality. You believe all involved just as Mike Terry does throughout and when it hits him, the revelation is astounding. I believe that is due to the brilliant turn from Chiwetel Ejiofor in this lead role. Supposedly he had never had any formal martial arts training beforehand, but when you see him encompass Terry, you won’t believe that. He really pulls off the realism and the energy and the stoic calm of being in control at all times, not competing because that forum only weakens you. Eijiofor carries the film on his back as he enters the world of Hollywood business and behind closed-door deals before attempting to claw his way out. Despite the opportunity presented him, he never falters from the passion he has in the sport and the willingness to help anyone in need. A true hero, Mike Terry continues on his path of righteousness, pushing the anger away and clearing his mind to prevail.

The rest of the cast—consisting of many Mamet regulars like wife Rebecca Pidgeon, David Paymer, and Ricky Jay in small roles—take the words and nail each reading. Max Martini stands out as Terry’s star pupil and backbone emotionally to the story; Alice Braga is good as the wife finding that standing by her man may not be the way to succeed financially in life; Emily Mortimer is fantastic as the troubled attorney who’s accidental introduction to the gym puts everything into motion; and Tim Allen shows that maybe he still has some good serious turns in him if only he can get some time off from children’s fare. Along with the acting comes some amazing choreography fight-wise too. The camera usually stays in close-up, but there aren’t too many sharp cuts, allowing the full fight to play out as realistically as possible. Sure we get the one man fighting a gang and winning, but he never prevails unscathed, allowing us to believe what we are seeing.

So, in conclusion, don’t hear all the martial arts noise and think Mamet has gone off the deep-end. Redbelt is first and foremost his film, steeped in dialogue, quiet moments, and orchestrated sequences adding up all the pieces to be placed exactly where he wants them. Entertaining throughout, the film delivers on the promises of multiple genres and gives us a taste of this famous writer again, bringing him back into our consciousness to realize that he hasn’t thrown the towel in yet.

Redbelt 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Left: Emily Moriter as Laura Black. Right: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry. Photo by Lorey Sebastian, © The Redbelt Company, LLC, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Left: Tim Allen as Chet Frank. Right: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry. Photo by Lorey Sebastian, © The Redbelt Company, LLC, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.


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