Director : David Mamet
Screenplay : David Mamet
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mike Terry), Emily Mortimer (Laura Black), Alice Braga (Sondra Terry), Tim Allen (Chet Frank), Jose Pablo Cantillo (Snowflake), Rodrigo Santoro (Bruno Silva), Ricky Jay (Marty Brown), Joe Mantegna (Jerry Weiss), Rebecca Pidgeon (Zena Frank), David Paymer (Richard), Max Martini (Joe Collins), John Machado (Augusto Silva)
Redbelt answers a question that probably very few people (myself included) have thought to ask: What would it look like if David Mamet made a martial arts movie? The Chicago playwright-turned-filmmaker’s métier has primarily been the hard-knock world of the down-and-out and the criminal, with his tough, rhythmic prose giving a sense of poetry to the vulgar and the pathetic. Yet, even though it’s easy to summarize Mamet’s style and artistic persona in a few choice phrases, his range on screen is craftily impressive, ranging from noir-ish psychodrama like his masterful debut House of Games (1987), to broad Hollywood-skewering comedy like State and Main (2000). You can try to pigeonhole Mamet, but he always slips out.
So it is with Redbelt, which is not a great Mamet film, but is a relentlessly intriguing and entertaining one. Like many of his narratives, this one takes a number of unexpected turns in unexpected places, leading you to one conclusion while slipping around behind you and tapping your other shoulder. The less you know about the story (I knew virtually nothing when I sat down), the better it plays because there’s no sense of trying to figure out where the story points will fit together. What is perhaps most amazing about Mamet the writer is the way he brings conviction to an increasingly ridiculous series of plot contrivances. By the end of Redbelt, he even manages to endow the most obvious of action-movie clichés--the forced fight scene--with a real sense of gravitas.
Redbelt begins in a Los Angeles jujitsu academy run by Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Gulf War veteran who takes martial arts and the lessons they impart with grave seriousness. The business end of the school is run by his Brazilian wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), who also has her own textile business. Mike is a great teacher and a deeply noble man, but he’s not a good businessman, and as a result the academy is in financial trouble. He has dedicated students, though, including Joe Collins (Max Martini), a police officer who invests deeply in Mike’s code of honor.
Without giving away too much, suffice it to say that the first half hour contains a series of seemingly unrelated events that draw Mike into worlds that threaten his honor and possibly his livelihood. There is a troubled attorney named Laura (Emily Mortimer) who stumbles into the academy and accidentally discharges Joe’s gun. There is an aging action movie star named Chet Frank (Tim Allen) whom Mike saves from a beating at a bar and who, in return, invites Mike to his house for lunch and possibly into the world of Hollywood magic. Mike takes the pill, so to speak, and soon he is caught up with entertainment power brokers like Chet’s producer Jerry Weiss (Joe Mantegna) and a fight promoter named Marty Brown (Ricky Jay) who represent all that is corrupt and soulless in the world. The question, then, is can Mike maintain his own honor in the face of so much treachery?
In some ways, Mike is like many of Mamet’s heroes, in that he is a man defined primarily by his occupation and the seriousness with which he takes it. Yet, Mike’s intentions and actions are noble in a way that is largely alien to Mamet’s work, which has focused primarily on flawed protagonists and how their flaws draw them into worlds of corruption. That is the basic thrust of Redbelt, with Mike constantly being pushed toward the edge of losing his own soul by the hucksters and moneymen who surround him. However, Mike is able to draw from his conviction that jujitsu is not just an art, but a way of life that orders an otherwise unordered world. He takes it so seriously that he refuses to enter into competitions because it degrades the art, turning it into simple showmanship.
That is also the line that Mamet seems to be skirting throughout Redbelt, as he is clearly intrigued by the nature of jujitsu and what it represents spiritually (he got the idea for the film while learning the martial art). However, he is also working within the confines of a genre that demands action, which has never been his strong suit. The violence in Mamet films is typically verbal, but here we also get a few physical fight sequences, none of which are outstanding in terms of style and spectacle (Mamet seems to be downplaying them on purpose), but each of which has deep implications for the plot and characters. As always, Mamet is less interested in exactly what happens than how it affects the characters and how they react. Redbelt is essentially a morality tale in which Mike, the noble warrior-saint, is tested again and again to sacrifice his values for the material gains of which everyone around him is enamored. Like any Mamet film, corruption is everywhere, but Redbelt is the first to show us the kind of unsullied spirit that can resist, albeit not easily and not without a price. As optimistic as it is, the final images of Redbelt carry an undercurrent of sadness that the purity of honor is not only so rare, but so costly.
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Indonesian, Arabic, Dutch|
|Distributor||Sony Pictures Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||August 26, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|David Mamet isn’t particularly well renowned for how good his films look, but Redbelt is definitely one of his more visually impressive works, due largely to the work of cinematographer Robert Elswit, who shot Michael Clayton and There Will Be Blood (the latter of which won him an Oscar). The 1080p high-definition transfer of the film looks great, although it’s not necessarily the kind of eye-popping image that some people tend to expect with high-def. However, it has a beautifully filmlike image with great clarity and no artificial sharpness. Colors are strong and natural, and black levels are excellent, which is particularly important given the somewhat noir-ish tone of the film. The uncompressed Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround soundtrack is also excellent. The film is dialogue heavy with little music, so the soundtrack isn’t terribly dynamic except during the various fight scenes and particularly at the tournament at the end of the film.|
|Especially for viewers like myself who are consistently fascinated by David Mamet’s work, the screen-specific audio commentary is definitely worth listening to in its entirely. Mamet recorded it with martial artist Randy Couture, who also has a small role in the film, and they sound relaxed and pleasant while reminiscing about the making of the film and talking martial arts. For a more streamlined and direct discussion of the film, there is also a 26-minute “Q&A With David Mamet” featurette in which film critic Kent Jones interviews the director on-stage after a screening of the film. There are also a handful of other featurettes, starting with the 19-minute “Behind the Scenes of Redbelt,” which includes segments on the script, production design, costumes, the cast, the fight scenes, and Mamet’s directorial style. Along with some behind-the-scenes footage from the production, there are interviews with Mamet, producer Chrisann Verges, a half-dozen members of the cast, and key production personnel. For those interested in the martial arts aspect of the film, there is the 18-minute featurette “Inside Mixed Martial Arts,” a 17-minute interview with Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White, and a 4-minute featurette that profiles the film’s fight choreographers. And, for those who are interested in magic (almost always an element in Mamet’s films), there is a too-brief 4-minute featurette about Japanese-American magician Cyril Takayama, who performs an extended version of the cigarette trick he does in the film.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment