The story of an underdog is one that always seems to resonate with movie audiences, most likely because at one time or another in our lives we have all been in that position, so we know what it feels like and can easily relate to it. In writer/director David Mamet’s recently released “Redbelt” we are given the typical Hollywood underdog story; however, that’s not good enough for a David Mamet movie, there must always be something more going on than what meets the eye. So, does “Redbelt” successfully push itself beyond the standard limits of an underdog story, or do the added subtexts cause the movie to ultimately suffer in the end?
“Redbelt” is the story of an idealistic Jiu-Jitsu instructor, Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiorfor), who lives his life according to a strict code of honor reminiscent of the samurai. After one fateful night, Mike comes to the aid of actor Chet Frank (Tim Allen) moments before the fading action star is about to be pummeled in a bar brawl. Feeling gratitude towards Mike for his heroic deed, Chet befriends the Jiu-Jitsu instructor; however, what appeared to be a kind gesture on Chet’s part may have been nothing more than a manipulative ruse to gain access to some of Mike’s training techniques for use in rigged televised MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fights, which Chet has a vested interest in. With this apparent betrayal at the hands of a dishonorable man, Mike is determined to set things right once more and earn his honor back.
This movie was kind of an odd experience for me, on the one hand it was a fairly decent drama, full of twists and turns, betrayal, and a good share of accurately depicted Jiu-Jitsu (the accuracy statement is based on what I’ve read about the movie, I personally wouldn’t know for sure). On the other hand, the movie is full of convenient coincidences; plot threads left completely unresolved, and an ending that is so horribly filmed and surprisingly simplistic that the movie seems to fall apart completely in the closing moments. With numerous positive elements working in the movie’s favor against some undeniably problematic negative elements I found myself moderately enjoying approximately half of the movie, but wishing the other half would have been a bit more refined, especially from a writer and director of David Mamet’s caliber.
Speaking of David Mamet, I am not one of his biggest fans, and whenever a new movie or project is announced that he will be working on I don’t anxiously await for it to be completed. I admit that I have enjoyed several of the movies and TV projects that he has written, or at least worked on, over the years (“The Shield”, “Hannibal”, etc.); however, after watching his last movie “Spartan” that he both wrote and directed, I came to the conclusion that even though the movie was decent, it just didn’t really work for me and if this was evidence of what a film written and directed by Mamet was going to be like, then I could easily wait for DVD or never see it at all and still be perfectly fine. With all that being said, when I saw the trailers for “Redbelt” I was very intrigued by the story and the cast chosen to flesh out the roles, but when I heard that this was another movie written and directed by David Mamet I kind of lost interest, and as I said would be the case, decided to wait for DVD. The movie still looked interesting enough to warrant a viewing, which is why I wouldn’t have been content to just let this movie pass me by.
The screenplay for “Redbelt” is a very well written drama that digs into the world of martial arts academies and televised fighting circuits. The story is the epitome of the classic underdog tale, as Mike takes on the likes of those much richer and more powerful than he could ever hope to be in order to regain the honor he feels he has lost due to his betrayal at the hands of actor Chet Frank and his cohorts. As sharp as the writing by Mamet is in this film, with its intricate web of deception and intrigue, for some unexplained reason, the climax becomes far too simplified, leaving many plot lines introduced earlier in the movie unresolved; plus, the camerawork for the final fight scene is some of the worst I have seen in a movie. I realize that David Mamet is much more skilled with drama than action, and I give him credit for including as many fight scenes as he did in this movie; however, the earlier fight scenes were filmed in a way that the audience was close to the action and could easily see what exactly was going on throughout the course of the fight. When it comes to the end of the movie, a majority of the time the camera is positioned in what feels like the other side of the arena, causing me, the viewer, to not be able to see much of what is going on. There are a few moments within that final fight where the camerawork is much better, but the jarring cutbacks to the distant shot completely disrupt whatever momentum the fight scene had. I am really surprised by David Mamet’s apparent inability to resolve his movie in a more satisfactory way, even though I am not his biggest fan I am smart enough to realize that he is a man that knows how to finish a movie properly, but for some reason he just chose not to do it here, and the movie definitely suffers for it.
As far as the acting in the film goes, everyone did an absolutely great job. Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Four Brothers”) was almost inspiring in his utmost commitment to his code of honor and inability to see the bad in others. I knew that Chiwetel was a very good actor, but I wasn’t sure if he could carry a movie on his own. For an actor that mostly spends his time in supporting roles, his jump into the lead role was surprisingly smooth, and his good-natured character most likely assisted in making him more relatable to the audience. Another performance worthy of praise was that of funny man Tim Allen (“The Santa Clause”), who was an odd choice for such a dramatic role, but his performance was quite possibly one of the best, if not the best, in his entire career as an actor. I had never seen Tim play a serious role before, not to mention a semi-villainous one, yet Tim nails the part perfectly, never once showing a hint of the comedian we’ve all known for years. Filling out the rest of the supporting cast we have Emily Mortimer (“The Pink Panther”) who plays a traumatized lawyer, Joe Mantegna (“The Last Don”) as Chet’s manager, and Ricky Jay who is a staple of many David Mamet films and TV episodes as an under-handed fight promoter. UFC fighter Randy Couture (“The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior”) shows up in a surprisingly good performance as a fight commentator working in the MMA fighting circuit that Mike is attempting to expose as a fraud.
In the end, “Redbelt” was still an average movie, but the problematic conclusion causes the experience to be far less enjoyable than it started out to be. Perhaps if David Mamet could have taken a little more time in tying up loose ends, instead of setting up cameras in some of the worst positions imaginable for a fight scene, the ending would have worked much better and the film would have benefited considerably.
“Redbelt” is rated R for violence and language.