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Redbelt   B

Sony Pictures Classics

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: David Mamet
Writer: David Mamet
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Emily Mortimer, Alice Braga, Tim Allen, Joe Mantegna, Rodrigo Santoro, Ricky Jay, Max Martini, David Paymer.

Review by Rob Vaux

You don't normally think of David Mamet as a martial arts enthusiast, and yet the subject does have some cross-over with his body of work. Notions of masculinity, duplicity, honor, and corruption work well within its tenets, especially since Ultimate Fighting and similar endeavors have become such a huge business. How does a tradition steeped in a warrior's code react to the pressures of millions of dollars? How easy is it to dupe someone whose actions adhere so predictably to notions thousands of years old? And how horribly, unspeakably difficult is it to stick to those notions when every mortal soul and sociological force in your world turns against you? Mamet knows... and with Redbelt, he finds an engaging and intelligent way of expressing it.

The martial art in question is Brazilian jujitsu -- something Mamet himself has apparently been engaged in for years -- but it could be just about any fighting skill that posits itself as a lifestyle rather than a sport. Its chief practitioner here is Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who runs a self-defense school in working-class Los Angeles. The fight game rakes in staggering amounts of cash as the best in the world duke it out in pay-per-view matches just a few miles away, but Terry wants none of that. Jujitsu isn't about money to him, or glory, or even competition. It provides clarity in his life: a moral path that he can walk which guides his every action. It gives him peace, it keeps him focused, and with his classes, it provides an opportunity to help impart that wisdom to others. Sadly, you can't eat wisdom. Nor can you pay rent with it. When financial misfortune comes calling, so do the sharks: primed to exploit his unparalleled jujitsu skills and with a very cunning scheme to rope him in whether he wants to be or not.

Critics sometimes accuse Mamet of making his dupes a little too clueless. They argue that no one could be as oblivious as Campbell Scott's poor pigeon in The Spanish Prisoner or Joe Mantegna's victims in House of Games. But as the audience, we have a leg up on them because we know they're in a David Mamet movie. They don't. It's much harder to spot the con when you're the mark (as Terry most definitely is here), and grifters thrive on their victims' arrogant assumption that no one could possibly hoodwink them. Mamet always understood that, and his best work illuminates the ease with which ostensibly good people can be undone by amoral men.

Redbelt finds a new permutation for that in Terry's steadfast code of ethics. He's neither stupid nor gullible, though he may appear that way sometimes. He simply knows how he should behave. And because his adversaries are equally familiar with his mindset, they seem to have a big advantage. Their machinations are complex and multilayered, as one would expect. We can spot the ringleaders very easily (Ricky Jay's a little obvious that way), and the path Terry must walk has an unduly familiar air to it. But we've rarely seen it illustrated as such a clear and obvious moral choice. Terry acts the way he does because to do otherwise would compromise who he is, and he refuses to do so, even as the pressure mounts. Ejiofor -- one of the very best actors working today -- grounds the film with another rich and sympathetic performance, which Mamet augments by mercilessly ratcheting the screws ever tighter. So wonderfully detailed is Terry that he could ultimately stand or fall -- endure in his beliefs or crumble before the growing onslaught -- and Redbelt would have an interesting story to tell us regardless.

The film also scores with a nice contrast between the roots of martial arts and the ways those at the top use it to become rich. Ultimate Fighting is rapidly replacing boxing as a premiere spectator sport, and Redbelt takes great pains to explore the way it can twist and distort a foundation it purports to hold so dear. Sleight of hand and bald-faced lies abound, and yet those tactics are eerily justifiable to those who practice it. They are the best in the world; why shouldn't they get a pile of money for what they do? The enticement of the bottom line moves the story beyond martial arts into larger social questions, without skimping on the unique aspects that transmute ancient philosophies into just another circus. It's ludicrous at times, but it can be that way in real life too, and it becomes all the more infuriating when you see what it started as. Terry sets foot into its minefield armed only with his conviction and sense of self, and Redbelt waits until the final shot to reveal whether his trip was worth it. The film itself certainly is: bolstered by Mamet's passion for the subject and overcoming the recurring contrivances required to keep it all on track. The director knows this world and the actor makes us care about it. Redbelt requires little more to make good on its promises.

Review published 05.01.2008.

Also read: Q&A: Chiwetel Ejiofor.

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