If you’ve seen anything by David Mamet then you know it’s kind of surprising (and awesome) that his new movie is about Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I even heard rumors that it was a straight ahead kickboxing movie like BLOODSPORT, and when the opening credits had Japanese drums like Christopher Lambert’s THE HUNTED I was about ready for the rebirth of action cinema. But this is really not an action movie. Anyone who goes in looking for that might be disappointed like the guy who wanted his money back when I saw GHOST DOG. Maybe not quite as much – there’s not alot of poetic shots of birds flying or long scenes of dudes driving around quietly contemplating. But this is not BEST OF THE BEST 2008, it’s definitely a David Mamet movie. Slowly unfolding plot that could go in any direction, narrative that respects the audience enough not to spell everything out for them, an intricate con, macho dialogue, magic tricks, Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna, Mamet’s wife, songs by Mamet’s wife. I was hoping William H. Macey would show up as some retired kickboxing legend, but maybe next time.
The best thing about the movie is Chewetel Ejiofor. He plays Mike Terry, the instructor at a small, struggling jiu-jitsu academy, and a total fucking badass. He has some ties to bigshots in competitive mixed martial arts (or “karate potpouri” I believe they prefer to call it) but he doesn’t consider competition fights to be honorable, so he won’t do that even when he needs the money badly. It’s best to just let the plot fall into place, it’s not exactly high concept. But I will say that it involves some coincidence, a broken window, some lies, and some sleeper holds.
I don’t know how much training Ejiofor did. The fights are shot pretty close up, unfortunately. But the way he carries himself is very convincing. He’s still intelligent and sensitive like some of his other characters, but also he could kick your ass. I always like this guy when I see him but this is his best performance and character that I’ve seen.
Give some credit to Mr. Mamet of course. He found a great alternative to the classic Steven Seagal “Just How Badass is He?” speech. As much as I love characters listing the hero’s badass qualifications it’s refreshing how Mamet leaves it at hints. Like when Mike runs into a tough guy friend of his training stuntmen how to knife fight, and they start talking about this movie producer. Mike’s friend asks:
“Did he ask you if you were in the military?”
“Did you tell him what you did?”
“He didn’t ask.”
Nothing more on the subject is said, or needs to be said.
There aren’t too many fights and when there are they aren’t take-your-breath-away showstoppers like in the best martial arts movies. They’re more matter of fact and realistic. Two dudes grunting and trying to crush each other’s throats. SPARTAN (which was Mamet’s version of a special ops badass movie) did have a couple perfectly staged action moments, not so in this one. I think that’s the one thing that could’ve made the movie better for me would be if it actually did go for a little more action movie thrills (without abandoning what they already have here). But oh well, I’m not gonna cry about it.
What I have not mentioned at all yet is the most important aspect of REDBELT, and the main reason I loved it. No, not Tim Allen. The most important part is the code of honor. The story comes entirely out of Mike and his students’ code of honor. They make decisions based on their codes even if it’s gonna get themselves in trouble or make their wives mad at them. The most important thing is not bringing shame upon the academy. One scene I love is when Mike and his wife (Alice Braga, the woman from I AM LEGEND) are arguing about something Mike and his student did to help a stranger that loses them some money. She asks if he thinks that’s noble and he says “No, I think it’s correct.”
Man, I’m a sucker for a good code of honor story, and that theme in this movie is about as right-on as they come. Makes me want to stand up and cheer, like KNIGHTRIDERS. The story is about Mike sticking to his code in the face of the corrupt moneymaking behemoths of Hollywood and professional sports. Like most people these days he is surrounded by people who see nothing wrong with selling out ancient traditions and values for profits, who think doing something because it’s “correct” is naive and silly. He sticks to his guns and he takes some losses because of it, but he has some victories too. The story also applies his jiu-jitsu philosophy to the dangers he faces outside of the ring. Listen to what he says in his classes, most of what he’s talking about applies to more than just fighting.
I believe this is a truly great movie, and I know of five acquaintances and a few readers who saw it and so far it’s unanimous admiration for this one. But Mamet’s style is not for everybody, so I won’t make any guarantees. That’s why I believe now REDBELT should actually turn into an action/exploitation series like the KICKBOXER series or AMERICAN NINJA or something. That way we could all share REDBELT and enjoy it equally. Ejiofor should return and this time it’s all about rescuing somebody that gets kidnapped or cleaning up the neighborhood of drugs or going back to Afghanistan to rescue his platoon who were left behind. And my buddy who I refer to in reviews as “Mr. Armageddon” suggests that he should only be referred to as Redbelt. “That’s no amateur you’re dealing with. That’s Redbelt!”
Of course this would never happen but I’m not being sarcastic, I would honestly love if it did. The character is that great, you just want to see him in any adventure you can get. In REDBELT 4: CIRCLE OF JUSTICE I’m sure he would be played by Michael Jai White or Kirk Sticky Jones, but I’d still give it a shot.
Trivia: I swear to God, Jar Jar Binks himself Ahmed Best is listed on the credits as a stuntman. So look carefully, maybe he gets what they call “knocked the fuck out.”
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.