To Judge Gordon Sullivan, DVD reviewers are modern samurais.
Our review of Redbelt, published August 15th, 2008, is also available.
Improve the position!
David Mamet was one of the first names I really knew in cinema. I don't remember exactly how old I was, but something about seeing Glengarry Glen Ross really impressed me. The acting was amazing, and I recall it being one of the first times I really cared about how the dialogue was crafted. It was no longer a vehicle for delivering story points, but became (in Mamet's hands) a kind of poetry, something to be appreciated outside the context of the narrative. I became an instant Mamet fan, following his career ever since. Even with my appreciation for his genius, I was highly skeptical when I heard his new film would focus on the booming world of MMA. Not surprisingly, nothing about Redbelt is as simple as it seems, and Mamet provides a very satisfying martial arts film that balances fighting and philosophy.
Facts of the Case
Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Serenity) runs a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu dojo that's barely scraping by. When an accident causes his window to be broken, it sets off a chain of events that will lead this pure martial artist into the corruption of the prizefighting world.
In my review of the Blu-ray release of Never Back Down (another MMA flick), I lamented the hypocrisy that most fight films succumb to: the protagonist must spend most of the film preaching non-violence (or non-competitiveness in this case), but magically he or she must give in and fight in the tournament or battle du jour. Most films give a fairly compelling reason for the competition (like a kidnapped girlfriend or family member), but leave it to Mamet to give us a compelling, complex, even adult reason for Mike Terry's decision to take to the ring. Terry is tangled in a web that borders on the fantastic (I don't want to give too much away), but the interests which compel him to fight are surprisingly mature (and practical): financial stability and acceptance of responsibility.
This departure from fight-film conventions should clue the prospective viewer into the fact that Mamet's film is not going to deliver on the usual martial arts pleasures. There are no extended beatdowns, no rousing come-from-behind victory, and no satisfying conclusion. Instead, we get a profound meditation on the place of honor and philosophy in the modern society. Though Chiwetel Ejiofor's Mike Terry, we watch the toll, both personal and professional, that having a code can have on a person. In that respect, Redbelt hearkens back to samurai films in a way not dissimilar to Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai.
While fight fans may be disappointed, Mamet fans will not. The director's trademark dialogue and focus on masculinity is in full effect. We also get his amazing eye for actors. Some of the fighters we see in the film are from the MMA world, and it's often difficult to distinguish between those who are usually paid to act and those who are paid to fight. Still, however good the fighters are, this movie belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor. He plays Terry as low-key and competent. He's a fighter who understands that the battle is often won in the mind. It also helps that he looks utterly convincing during the film's fights. The other delight in the film is Tim Allen. He looks like he's put on a little weight (which is perfect for his role as an aging action star). I didn't know he could do gravitas like this. I hope his role here gets him more dramatic work in the future.
The cinematography also deserves mention. The look of the film is hard and sharp, which fits Terry's philosophy perfectly. Also, the fight scenes are captured in a provocative style. The impact of the fight scenes is slightly reminiscent of those found in the Bourne series. But, where those fights often relied on intensity to overcome the sometimes confusing aspects of the fights, Redbelt keeps the intensity up while also ensuring that the audience can identify both fighters and what they are doing. However, the primary intensity of the fights in Redbelt stems from their emotional impact more than the force of the blows. These aren't visceral fights (as in Fight Club) where the audience is meant to feel each hit. Rather, Redbelt keeps the fights interesting because of the emotional stakes at play.
This Blu-ray release of Redbelt complements the film's strengths. The transfer (at 2.40:1 in contrast to Mamet's other work) is wonderful. The presentation is very film-like, with vivid saturation and enough grain to be convincing. The audio does an equally fine job, keeping both dialogue and music balanced.
The supplements for this release are many and varied. We hear from Mamet and fighter Randy Couture on a commentary. The two have a lot to say about the production, as well as the wider world of MMA. Keeping up with Mamet, we get a long (20-plus minutes) interview/Q&A with him. There's also an EPK-style featurette that focuses on the production. The extras also include some info on MMA itself. We get "Inside Mixed Martial Arts" which has a lot of repetition, but makes up for it with the breadth of the participants. For those who want to know more about the fighters, a number of profiles are included. Finally, there's a featurette on Cyril Takayama's magical arts to round out the disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you go in looking for a traditional fight film (something like Bloodsport), you will likely be disappointed. The fights and action in Redbelt are nearly as viscerally satisfying as those found in other martial arts films. Also, the film is a little slow (compared to other action/fight films), taking its time setting up the characters and situation.
Redbelt is another excellent entry into David Mamet's body of work. By providing interesting characters, complex relationships, and fight philosophy in a single package, Mamet has shown that the samurai film can survive in the twenty-first century. Whether you're new or returning to the film, this Blu-ray disc will provide an above-average audiovisual experience while also providing a number of informative supplements.
Redbelt really earns its title by providing a master-level film about fighting. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with David Mamet and Randy Couture
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