The ever-increasingly popular sport of mixed martial arts was tailor-made for film. In fact, well before the emergence of the UFC in the 1990s, B-movies about street fighters, kick boxers and bare-knuckle brawlers slugging it out in back alleys, dank basements and chain link cages were common place. And now that the UFC and mix martial arts competition have gained legitimacy--at least as much legitimacy as modern-day gladiatorial games can have--the sport has steadily found its way into mainstream films, most notable being the recent craptacular Karate Kid rip-off, Never Back Down. But up until now, there has yet to be a film that seriously incorporates MMA the way boxing has been incorporated. Writer-director David Mamet's Redbelt changes that.
Admittedly, the thought of one of the most well-respected writer-directors in contemporary film making a movie about MMA seems, at first anyway, to be two great tastes that might not exactly taste great together. Mamet's stories are driven by plot and character, and seldom have much use for action, unless it is integral to either the plot or the character. Movies about martial artists tend to be about action, with things like plot and dialog used to pad out what is otherwise an excuse to watch grown folks beat the crap out of each other. Finding the right balance would not be easy for a filmmaker who was less of a writer than Mamet, and for him, the only real challenge is finding an audience up to the intellectual challenge of watching a movie that does not spoon-feed the audience as if they were toddlers.
"David really knows how to write a great story, how to creative a narrative, and how to create a structure. It was a real pleasure to be there and say the words," said Redbelt star Chietel Ejiofor during a recent interview.
Ejiofor stars as Mike Terry, the unfortunate hero of Redbelt. "Unfortunate" because as with most of Mamet's heroes, Mike, without even realizing it, has blindly walked into a world of trouble. The greatest part about watching David Mamet's best films is the anticipation of knowing that someone is going to get screwed over. Once you understand the way Mamet structures his best thrillers--House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner and even Glengarry Glen Ross (which he did not direct)--you can't help but feel the tension building the moment the movie starts. You know that every detail is important to the story, and that somehow it is all going to relate back to the inevitable cornholing of the hero. And anyone who is really familiar with Mamet's work knows that sooner or later you want to throw your hands up in the air, and in the case of Redbelt, scream at Mike Terry, "Run away you asshole! Just run away now!"
As Redbelt starts out, we meet Mike, a highly principled and well-respected fight instructor that does not believe in competition fighting. For Mike, combat is not about winning a prize, but about survival, which is what he teaches his students--"There's always a way out," he tells his students. But his personal philosophy is not exactly working out for his business, which is in dire financial straits, and that only serves to frustrate his wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), who thinks Mike could earn some serious money working for her brother, who is in business with crooked fight promoters. As with all of Mamet's work, a seemingly random act of fate will forever change our hero's life, when Mike comes to the rescue of washed-up action star Chet Frank (a surprisingly good Tim Allen). Beholden to Mike, Chet brings him into the glamorous world of Hollywood, offering Mike a job as a fight coordinator on his latest film, and lavishing the Terry family with gifts. But of course, nothing is as it seems, and the cruel twist of fate soon has Mike by the balls, and is squeezing the life out of him while his whole world crumbles around him. Exactly who is screwing Mike and why is, as with many of Mamet's films, is the mystery to be unraveled.
While not as good as Mamet's best paranoid thrillers, Redbelt is still a very solid film. The writing is sharp, the story tightly structured, and the cast is all top-notch. Ejiofor, who has proven himself to be great character actor--even in some questionable films--steps up his game, and moves effortlessly into the role of leading man. The rest of cast, which include regular Mamet players like Joe Mantegna and Ricky Jay, all turn in wonderful performances, but Ejiofor owns the film.
Redbelt also works in that it delivers some of the best--as in most realistic--fight sequences in recent film history. Ejifor trained in London at the Gracie Academy, which was co-founded in Brazil by Carlos Gracie, whose unique style of ju-jitsu took the world by storm when his son Royce dominated early UFC competitions. "The most important thing was to learn the basics of ju-jitsu, to really find an understanding of that. I was at the Gracie Academy in London, and Carlos Gracie and the Gracie family are kind of the preeminent family in ju-jitsu," recalls Ejiofor. "Then I was able to work with John Machado in LA, so I got a real in-depth look at the physicality of ju-jitsu as well as the philosophy. By training with people who really did it, as opposed to the style being reinterpreted by a stunt coordinator or a stuntman that would then teach me the moves, working with the real guys was a way of also understanding the philosophy of ju-jitsu, and therefore an introduction into the philosophies and ideas of this character."
Diehard fans of low-rent martial arts movies like Bloodsport or King of the Kickboxers--people who find these flicks to be great cinema--will be put off by the cerebral nature of Redbelt. Let's face it, Mamet does not make movies for people who don't want to think or can't pay attention. But for those who appreciate great storytelling, and who view well-placed fight sequences as plot elements as opposed the actual plot, Redbelt is a highly entertaining film.