Sony // 2008 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // August 15th, 2008
"A man distracted is a man defeated."
-- Mike Terry
At first glance, Redbelt may look like something in between Rocky and Never Back Down. That is, until you see whose name is above the title. David Mamet has taken his usual fare (con men, greed, degradation of principles) and inserted it into the milieu of mixed martial arts. Surprisingly, Mamet has, for the most part, succeeded in creating the sort of taut character drama that he's known for while also mixing in a healthy assortment of beat downs.
Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Children of Men) is a Jiu-Jitsu master whose fighting academy is struggling to stay afloat, mainly because of his refusal to compete in the pay-per-view MMA leagues.
One rainy evening at the academy, Terry and an off-duty police officer (Max Martini, The Unit) are visited by a disturbed woman who, in a moment of panic, accidentally shoots out the window. This single act sets a series of events in motion that bring Mike Terry into a world he once refused to enter. Suddenly he has to deal with scheming Hollywood producers, a has-been actor (Tim Allen, Home Improvement), loan sharks, in-laws, and a league of money-grubbing fight promoters. Mike's black and white values are put to the test as he tries to save his academy, his friends, and his soul.
Redbelt dances, like a sparring fighter, between the conventions of a Hollywood "fight film" and the conventions of a David Mamet film. It is both a morality play and a hero legend, as one man's core beliefs and values fall under a barrage of temptations and attacks. Sure there's fighting in the movie, some of the most realistic fighting you'll see, but that's not the point.
The film opens with pounding drums, simple red credits, and the climax of a senior Jiu-Jitsu class. Here, Mamet establishes the thesis of the film, and the unwavering character of Mike Terry. "There's always an escape," Terry repeats as Officer Joe nearly chokes to death at the hands of his sparring partner. "There is no situation you could not escape from. You know the escape." Minutes later, a distraught woman stumbles through the academy's front door and accidentally fires Joe's gun, shattering the front window. From this point on, Mike Terry's theories and principles are put to the test in an ever-thickening plotline.
Redbelt is an example of a master at work. Mamet has constructed a complex story bubbling with plenty of subplots and characters to keep track of. There are times when the film is almost overwhelmingly dense as his normal parade of character actors show up to play their normal parade of lowlifes (Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna, David Paymer, Rebecca Pidgeon, etc.). In the end, Mamet asks the viewers to draw their own conclusions and decipher what is important and what isn't. As Terry gets sucked in to Hollywood and the big MMA competition, there are plenty of alliances, backstabbers, and connections to be discovered. It's incredible, almost to the point of unbelievability, to see how Terry finally gets conned into fighting. And just as the film reaches its third act, and Terry squares off against his brother-in-law behind the scenes at the MMA pay-per-view, we see that Terry stands alone to do what's right.
Movie-goers looking for a classic "fight film" like Raging Bull or Cinderella Man may find Redbelt to be a tad frustrating. The ending especially (without giving anything away) can feel slightly over-the-top, assuming you don't connect the dots and make some assumptions yourself. In writing this film, it feels like Mamet wasn't particularly interested in the fights themselves (even though he knows quite a bit about Jui-Jitsu and MMA). They appear in the film, but only out of necessity; and when they do, the editing becomes choppier, the camera shakier, and the jump cuts to on-lookers more prevalent. Obviously, without these moments the movie wouldn't be a "fight film," and would in turn be pretty boring. Instead, he uses the fights as river locks, raising and lowering the characters involved to different levels of morality, with the final fight (and that awesome flip!) being especially significant for the character of Mike Terry.
For as complicated and perhaps unrealistic as some of the events in the film may seem, the dialogue and acting in Redbelt are some of the most naturalistic Mamet's created. Unlike Glengarry Glen Ross or Heist, which feature his signature rapid-fire, sailor-talk, Redbelt is toned down. The characters still repeat each other and carry on cycling and overlapping conversations, but it never feels forced or unnatural. The actors, led by the incredible Chiwetel Ejiofor, actually emote without feeling like they're "acting." And while he may have seemed like a weird choice at first, Tim Allen is actually perfect as the has-been Hollywood star. Accompanying the actors are some of MMA's best real-life fighters, who add some gravitas to the fight scenes (and they don't do so bad with dialogue, either).
For Redbelt, Mamet broke from his usual aspect ratio (1.33:1) and filmed in 2.40:1 Cinemascope; the result is great. Mamet's framing is calculated and the cinematography by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) is rich and dynamic. The film's visual appeal is heightened further by Mamet's attention to detail. Each frame of the film reeks of authenticity (even if most of the film was done on a sound stage), right down to the graphic design of the program for the MMA fight. The video on this standard-def DVD, which was mastered in high definition, is clean and vibrant. Even better than the picture is the Dolby Digital Surround track, which highlights the pounding score by Stephen Endelman as well as every punch thrown.
Accompanying the movie is a robust set of special features, including a commentary track, featurettes, and interviews. The commentary track features David Mamet alongside UFC champion Randy Couture (who plays a commentator in the film). It's a fun track that combines Mamet's encyclopedic knowledge and experience with Couture's inquisitiveness and athletic proficiency. The behind-the-scenes and "Inside MMA" featurettes have consistent production values and some very informative interviews about working with Mamet and training for the film (plus some cool footage of Mamet wrestling some guy). The best supplemental feature on the disc is the Q&A with Mamet, which offers up a number of insightful questions about the film's messages and symbolism. There is also an interview with Dana White, the current owner of Ultimate Fighting Championship. It's a nice inclusion, but ultimately just feels like a chance for the guy to unashamedly promote his fighting league. Last, but not least, is an animated fighter profile feature which offers up text stats of the real-life fighters who appear in the movie. This DVD comes with an impressive set of special features, and the only thing I am left missing are deleted scenes (if there are any).
For as layered and insightful as the film may seem, it's far from being Mamet's best effort. The first act of the film builds perfectly, introducing all of the characters and setting up the motives of the main players. In the second act, the plot twists as the evils of the world begin to seep in to Mike Terry's life. But it's in the third act, which finds our hero practically forced to fight on the undercard of the pay-per-view MMA event, that things begin to get a little hairy.
Without spoiling anything, I can safely say that some of the double-crossing that occurs isn't really clear or believable. Surely the majority of MMA fans that went to see this movie had to be disappointed with the lack of sweet fight footage, but Mamet fans had to be a tad disappointed with the sheer looseness of the ending. The abrupt approval of The Professor and the beloved belt is a very moving moment in the film, but we are left to decide for ourselves how it could have worked out in reality. Perhaps the message of the ending trumps the melodramatic events. That's possible. But most viewers looking for a good MMA fight film may just leave miffed.
Redbelt was a critical hit but a commercial failure when it was released earlier this year. Sadly, this may have been due to the way the film was marketed. It's not a crazy kung fu fight film. The action in the movie is almost completely ignored unless it's essential to character progression. This is because the movie is all about character. It's a study about honor, principles, and morals against manipulation, greed, and vapid popularity. In a way, the film itself holds those ideals by focusing more on the characters and the plot than the bloody fights and action.
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track with David Mamet and Randy Couture
* Behind-the-Scenes Featurette
* "Inside Mixed Martial Arts"
* Q&A with David Mamet
* Interview with Dana White
* Fighter Profiles
* "The Magic of Cyril Takayama" Featurette
* DVD Verdict Audio Interview with the cast of Redbelt