Who would've thought that Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and filmmaker David Mamet would ever make a martial arts film? The Bard of the "F" word usually restricts his fights to the verbal arena, watching as predators try to out talk one another in a game of metronomic one-upmanship. So, what's he doing making a martial arts film with a plot that sounds like American Ninja 4?
Well, Mamet is a strange individual. A great writer with a masterful understanding of storytelling structure, he's also committed to filmmaking within the forms of standardized genres. Mamet sees the stereotyped characters of crime films, noirs, and thrillers as the archetypal equivalents of the mythic heros of Joseph Campbell. Basically every film Mamet has made is some variant on a classic American genre film. So, it appears that this time out, he has mixed his personal interest and training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with some kind of noir story/fight flick. The martial arts genre itself is an amalgamated form, compressing concepts of several cultures before being assimilated into the Hollywood system. American western heros borrowed by Akira Kurosawa in his samurai pictures became the template for Chinese stories of lone martial artists trying to remain true to their personal code while walking a thorny path full of danger and betrayal.
This path is quite thorny for Mamet's hero, Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A stoical and extremely skilled jiu-jitsu master, Mike runs a small, financially strained martial arts school in the mean streets of south side LA with his wife Sondra (Alice Braga). Sondra takes care of the books and is getting frustrated with Mike's refusal to earn money in the prize fighting circuit because of his belief that competition is demeaning to the art.
One night following an intense class, a nervous and paranoid woman (Emily Mortimer) stumbles into his dojo. She is frightened by one of Mike's students, an off-duty cop (Max Martini) only trying to help her, and in a panic grabs his gun and shoots out the school's front window. The cop sweeps the incident under the rug to avoid bringing dishonor on his master. Without the money to fix the window, Mike has to try and get help from his brother in law, a club owner and fight promoter. The events that follow lead Mike to a relationship with a shady TV star named Chet Frank (Tim Allen) and a complex web of events that resemble the vice grip plots of Mamet's House of Games and Spanish Prisoner. With his financial problems increasing due to his uncompromising nature, he soon finds that he has no choice but to take part in a fight competition on Pay-Per-View.
Redbelt is simply a perfectly distilled example of filmmaking and perhaps Mamet's most satisfying crime film to date. While House of Games or Spartan may feature more cerebral and twisted plotting, they also come with a frigid tone that Mamet seems only able to lose in his comedies like the wonderful State and Main. Redbelt certainly isn't warm and fuzzy-it's a noir after all- but the character of Mike Terry goes beyond the writing room construction of Mamet's usual action hero to actually exhibit a true sense of sadness and nobility. This is partly the work of Mamet the screenwriter who has created a really intriguing figure in Terry, a man of principle who finds that it's his principles that's causing his loved ones to suffer. It's partly the work of Mamet the director along with the Academy Award winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) in using the Cinemascope aspect ratio to put Terry alone in widescreen shots of emptiness. But it's mostly the work of the talented English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor who really nails this character to the core. It's not the characteristically sharp Mamet dialogue that makes Ejiofor so effective so much as what Ejiofor does between the lines, giving weight to the words through moments of powerful contemplation and silence. Ejiofor's face is so expressive and yet never forced, always truthful and subtle that he makes Terry's dilemma something the audience actually cares about in a way that goes beyond Mamet's storytelling theorems.
The cast, as usual with Mamet, is flawless and eccentric. Mamet likes to mix members of his unofficial stock company like magician Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna, and his wife Rebecca Pidgeon with seemingly random choices from outside the box like Tim Allen and Emily Mortimer. Both are excellent in the film with Allen in particular a surprise with his slimy turn as an untrustworthy and rich aging TV star.
The only thing that may be a let down for some people is that fact that Redbelt is a lot like it's protagonist and is a movie more about contemplation and personal value than hand to hand combat. There's actually plenty of action in the movie just not like an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. Here, the action isn't the excuse for the story but emerges as a result of the story and the characters' conflicted interactions. It's more of a classic sports film than an action flick and the world of mixed martial arts that it presents seems genuinely authentic and well researched. It's a cynical world to be sure and Mamet seems to be drawn to these worlds like a moth to a flame. He seems to find in them a perfect place to challenge his decent men, forcing them to make tough decisions for themselves and their friends. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Redbelt is how Mamet finds a way to keep his cynicism and yet, not leave his hero broken and lost at the end. This one time, and it may have been the result of Mamet's own affection for his creation, the hero is allowed to be released from his suffering and the final shot of the film is perhaps one of the most inspiring and moving in any fight film including Rocky.
Sony's DVD release is far from the bare bones DVD you might have expected from a film that barely appeared on most moviegoers' radars. It packs a nice set of extras onto its single disc release. The disc I reviewed is in standard definition but it is also available in Blu-ray. Presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, the sound and image are excellent. The extras are divided between examining the world of the film's subject matter, mixed martial arts, and exploring the craft and techniques of the film's creator David Mamet.
First up is a "Behind the Scenes of Redbelt" featurette which actually provides some very interesting interviews with Joe Mantegna about the characters in Mamet's films and also some great footage showing how Mamet directs his cast. For fans of the writer-director this is a rare chance to see behind the curtain. A "Q and A with David Mamet" moderated by film critic Kent Jones at the Film Society of Lincoln Center shows the filmmaker in a fine mood, giving witty answers to an audience asking questions about his methods and specifically about the themes of Redbelt. Asked if the movie is political, Mamet replies, "Sure, why not?"
The fighting side of the extras is represented by an interview with UFC president Dana White, some fighter profiles, and a longer featurette called "Inside Mixed Martial Arts". A highlight of this piece shows Mamet himself engaged in some hand to hand combat.
Along with the theatrical trailer and other previews of Sony releases , the "odd man out" content is a short feature on magician Cyril Takayama, who appears briefly in the film doing magic.
Finally there is an excellent and very relaxed and conversational commentary track by Mamet and his friend, UFC five time title holder Randy Couture. It's a perfect idea for this disc, mixing Mamet's comments on filmmaking, show biz, and martial arts with Couture's honest interest in the filmmaking process and his wealth of knowledge of the fight world. There are interesting asides from Mamet as he points out the appearances of both Jennifer Grey from Dirty Dancing who appears quite out of nowhere and another of Mamet's "boys", Married with Children's Ed O'Neill who was supposed to have had a larger part but had to back out due to his work on HBO's failed series John From Cincinnati. It's noted that O'Neill "had to be in the film" even briefly because he is the one who got Mamet into the sport and is himself a black belt in Brazilian Jui-Jitsu. Who would've known that Al Bundy was a black belt trained by the world famous Gracies themselves.
The only thing missing from the disc would be deleted scenes, but knowing how hard Mamet works to hone his scripts before shooting, there probably aren't any.