Most martial arts movies feature combatants using some form of kung fu or American karate, which allows the noble hero to spinkick assailants over warehouse boxes or do some sort of flashy jumping split to win the Kumate. It’s a ballet of violence. A group of cartwheeling ninjas and open-palm-heel-struck mercenaries twirling and springing through back alleys, being dispatched by rippling mounds of muscle grunting out one-liners as they go to save some busty victim from certain death. It’s all done to a thumping Whitesnake-laden soundtrack peppered with swooshing limbs and bone-crunching strike sound effects.
Redbelt lives in the world of mixed martial arts, specifically Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Not a style designed for artistry. It’s designed to beat the fucking bejeezus out of your opponent until they look like Gary Busey after a Tijuana bender. Most of the battles end with both fighters tangled up on the ground choking each other until someone’s eyes go veiny, or pounding on any available organ until one fighter is knocked unconscious or calls uncle. It’s not pretty. It’s fucking brutal, and ugly, and real. I remember watching one UFC bout (appropriately while drunk on greasy chicken wings and cheap beer at a Plymouth Meeting Hooters) where a brawler was crowned champion after viciously socking his opponent in the testicles six or seven times. This is not something you would see Chuck Norris do.
So it is thoroughly appropriate that writer-director David Mamet would choose such a realistic and brutish style as the focus for his version of the martial arts movie. What else do you expect from the man who took the espionage conceit of James Bond and Jason Bourne, carved it to the bone, and gave us Ronin? Redbelt isn’t about everyone kung fu fighting; it’s about martial art. The concept is the same as you would see in any hamfisted chop-socky direct-to-DVD starring Don “The Dragon” Wilson or Sasha “The Uncle Cody” Mitchell: A warrior who shuns fighting for noble purposes finds himself in a position where he has to fight to avenge the honor of a slain student or family member, or he needs to earn the same amount of money that is conveniently the prize offered in some big tournament. Then sweaty kickboxing ensues. But Mamet takes the thread and weaves it into an incredibly tight and intricately layered story that manages to both transcend and overturn the martial arts genre.
Explaining a Mamet plot is like shattering cinderblocks with a ridgehand: complex, difficult, and ultimately damaging. The whole flurry of fisticuffs that devastates does not come from the hero’s hands but the playwright’s pen. Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) runs the Southside Jiu-Jitsu dojo where he trains law enforcement officials with a hearty blend of Mr. Miyagi and Yoda, spouting fortune cookie wisdom like, “Breathe, breathe, remember to breathe,” and “You know the escape! There is always an escape!” A frazzled Laura Black (Emily Mortimer), an attorney clutching a prescription bottle she can’t get filled at a “legit pharmacy,” crashes her car in the rain outside the dojo. She comes in a paranoid panic and accidentally shoots out the dojo’s front window using the gun of Officer Joe (Max Martini). Mike’s wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), sends him to get a loan from her brother (Rodrigo Santoro), a samba club owner, who’s recruiting their other brother for a title fight for the International Fight Association promoter Marty Brown (Ricky Jay). While at the club to get the loan, Mike rescues Chet Frank (Tim Allen), a gritty action movie star, who enlists Mike to be a co-producer on the film with his business manager (Joe Mantegna).
I have just explained the first fifteen minutes of the movie. The plot is as rich and convoluted as the Princess Sweet Sixteen cake episode on the Food Network Challenge. Mamet’s ability to bring all these elements together is far more impressive than Steven Seagal sidekicking a seal, Navy or otherwise. I haven’t sworn out loud in a movie theatre in some time, but as the story’s bones start clacking into place and I was beginning to see what Mamet was constructing, I gasped, “Holy shit.” And I didn’t know the half of it.
Much like with a real fight, people are going to be put off by Mamet’s decision to shirk Vegas showboating for a crude dirt floor brawl. His dialogue pummels you with staccato body blows, uninteresting and clunky to the layman, but to the trained pugilist, the sweet science at its sweetest. Also, and perhaps most jarring, for a movie about the ins and outs of fighting championships and jiu-jitsu academies, there aren’t that many fights. The film shuns balls-to-the-wall asskickery for a more martial artsy-fartsy approach.
Mamet preaches The Art of War rather than the war itself. Mike Terry adheres strictly to the purity of jiu-jitsu, seeing competition as a means of weakening your skills and the belts as a means of holding up your pants. He focuses so stringently on the philosophy and maintaining the honor of the academy he loses sight of real world practicality. You can’t pay your bills with honor or integrity. It’s the age-old battle between commercialism and spirituality, but Mamet portrays it in a manner that’s not cliche or offensive. Mike lives by a warrior code that does not apply smoothly to this modern life; he’s a yojimbo in an American Express McWorld. Rather than having Mike battle his way though steroid-infused meatheads in varying degrees of sweatpants, he walks a more complicated path where he has to battle against his principles. For some folks, that’s not as satisfying as a roundhouse to the solar plexus, but that’s not what Mamet set out to do.
The acting is superb. Ejiofor depicts Mike with nobility and dignity without letting him devolve into one of those dudes cornering people at the gym water fountain to show you their latest weapons catalog from The Dragon’s Jewels. He rigidly preaches his doctrines without seeming radical or impractical. Braga peppers Sondra with the right level of spice, making her levelheaded and passionate at the same time. Mortimer has the most heavy lifting with her character, a jittery attorney who has to be both the wise Caterpillar and the bouncy White Rabbit. The rest of the Mamet Clan — David Paymer, Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna, Rebecca Pidgeon — show up and throw down. Each one of them gets such a delicious supporting part it was as if Mamet was making up ground lost while working on “The Unit.”
Now, let’s discuss Tim Allen. Mamet said he cast Allen because of his work in Galaxy Quest, which Mamet considers to be “a perfect movie.” And I fall in love with Mamet just that much more. It’s really a supporting role, but Allen bats it into the bleachers. He’s crude and arrogant, swaggering through his scenes like a swine in finery. It’s not going to be the breakthrough Travolta in Pulp Fiction role that I hoped it would be, but it’ll help wash some of that Shaggy Hair of the Dog taste out of people’s mouths.
Instead of a spectacular flashbulb crackling knockout in the third round, we get a technical slugfest that leaves both fighters standing at the end of the twelfth and a split decision from the judges. The ending falters, but never once veers from the path set out by Mamet. It’s a complicated movie that sticks and moves around the idealistic Mike Terry, and the audience, not with power blows but kidney punches, the kind you feel days later. Despite the definite lack of action, Mamet pins you to the mat with tension, locking an arm against your windpipe and holding you until you can barely breathe. The intensity of the performances wraps around your midsection and you pass out. Some folks will walk away from this one shaking their heads, feeling they got gypped on their tickets, but those who pay attention will feel like they just saw a warrior rise to greatness.
Brian Prisco is a warrior-poet from the valley of North Hollywood, by way of Philadelphia. He wastes most of his life in desk jobs, biding his time until he finally becomes an actor, a writer, or cannon fodder in the inevitable zombie invasion. He can be found shaking his fist and angrily shouting at clouds on his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.I Am a Man Who Will Fight for Your Honor
Film | May 5, 2008 | Comments ()