I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Redbelt

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.

RedbeltI 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?”
“Yeah.”
“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.

This entry was posted on Monday, May 19th, 2008 at 8:35 pm and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

24 Responses to “Redbelt”

  1. Were you disappointed at all with the ending? To me it didnt make much sense…first of all, the way his relationship with his wife inexplicably hit the skids, and how he conversely becomes close (romantically, even?) with Emily Mortimer, is criminally unexplained. Why was he given the belt at the end of the movie? What was he really trying to accomplish with his asskicking spree? The movie really had me for awhile, but doesn’t give itself any time to uncoil for the ending. Did any of this shit seem strange to you? I loved Spartan, and to me both the story and characters in that movie seemed pretty airtight. What’s the deal with Redbelt? Do you think I’m just missing something?

  2. Random thoughts on Redbelt:

    Chewy rocks. But don’t call him Chewy — he hates that. Do you think he and Marky Mark commiserated over this when they worked together? (Of course, Marky brought it on himself. Chewy didn’t, except by not changing his name.)

    I’m not smart enough to understand this plot. Or I’m too smart to fall for it.

    Mamet bad guys will always tip their hands by hanging around to boast after a con, or by leaving doors open. It’s like talking villains in Bond films.

    The wife is a cold bitch. Well, one sign of an auteur is consistency.

    I like the part where everything is suddenly going well, and our hero starts to get all Hollywood. You can see his personality changing during those scenes. That was funny. (Fortunately, it changes back.)

    I did not know what was going to happen from one moment to the next. Even if I had questions when it was over, I was fully involved as the film played out. Good filmatizing.

    Tim Allen was good for a comedy guy playing an action guy. Like Bill Murray, minus Suntory Time.

    I just don’t trust that Joe Mantegna. Do you think he thinks that Mamet thinks he looks like a snake? “Hey, Joe, got a role for you.” “Is it another weasel?” “Um, maybe. Wanna do it?” (sighs) “Okay.”

    Something got in my eye at the very, very end. I don’t expect this to happen in a Mamet film. Genuine surprise.

    If you want to have some fun, look at the reviews on imdb and Amazon. “I’m a big MMA fan, and this movie SUCKED! Whoever this guy is, he can’t write. He repeats everything. And why did they cast this nobody in the lead?” Then they say something about the bald guy with the cauliflower ears, only they know his name and everything, and they lament the fact that a celebrity of his stature is slumming it in this crap. Sometimes I get the inkling that most folks aren’t like us blog-commenting types.

    Good recommendation, Vern. Too bad Spartan isn’t viewable instantly on Netlfix. I’ll have to have them physically send me the little round flat thing through the postal service. I bet they will if I ask.

  3. I missed the earlier comment by Patrick. The reason he’s given the redbelt is to me the main reason why it’s a great movie. See, he’s a guy who believes in the code of honor and the meaning of martial arts, and thinks that the whole industry of competitive fighting is a perversion. After years of stubbornly refusing to be a part of it even when he needed the money he finally gives in and he’s gonna do this tournament, you think. He doesn’t end up doing it, but instead uses his fighting outside of the ring to try to stand up for the truth and the integrity of his martial art that nobody else there seems to give a shit about.

    So when The Old Man (Sticks from OUT FOR JUSTICE) gives him the belt it means he earned it not by winning some matches but by putting himself on the line for true jiujitsu. And it also means that despite being dragged out here the Old Man hasn’t been suckered into the sports entertainment business.

    Frank – I guess they must be talking about Randy Couture, whose name I learned later when he was the bad guy in SCORPION KING 2. He plays one of the ring announcers. I bet he’s more proud of REDBELT than SCORPION KING 2. But I’m not sure which one got him the part in THE EXPENDABLES.

    I think I’m too scared to look at the IMDb boards but I did get into it with John Campea from the Movie Blog when he said it was one of the worst endings ever. He criticized REDBELT in an article about “box office bombs,” as if he thought it was supposed to open big like an X-Men movie. And ironically being a guy obsessed with what makes money is exactly the reason why he would hate the ending, since it’s basically a huge fuck you to that mentality.

  4. I bought this movie because of this review. Just wanted to say Thank you, because there was no way in I was buying some MMA movie otherwise.

  5. Brendan – No offense mate, but why would you say that?

    If anything, I argue that the MMA/Pro Wrestling movie now potentially what the boxing film used to be: Sports melodramas, with those two working out themes and stories of supposed honor and personality since quite frankly, people don’t give a fuck about boxing anymore.

    You had THE WRESTLER and now RED BELT. Who knows, maybe we’ll soon get more classics within those lines?

  6. I’m not a big fan of MMA as it’s used in movies. Not saying it isn’t a worthy sport or that the people involved couldn’t kick my ass, because it is and they could. I just don’t think it’s lent its style to cinema very well, at least so far. Vern complained that the fight scenes were all shot with tight close ups of the characters’ faces and whatnot, well to me that seems to be the only way to shoot these kind of fights. When Ejiofior did something besides choke a dude (flip off the wall) Mamet backed up and showed it, so I don’t think you could argue that the guy has no idea how to shoot motion and that’s why the fights are the way they are. Obviously there are probably a hundred ways to prove me wrong, and I hope filmmakers do so. We need more crazy martial artists doing crazy shit for our collective blood-lust so I hope that action directors figure out ways to channel that into solid action movies. What’s weird about your point RRA is that your right about those movies being brilliant and them proving the potential of the field. But I think what makes Redbelt and The Wrestler great, isn’t the sports the characters engage in, but the character’s themselves. It’s Mike Terry’s unwavering dedication to his code of honor that makes him fascinating, and seeing just how far he will be pushed and still stand by the code that makes the movie so amazing. It didn’t necessarily have to revolve around a sport wherin the object is to crush another fully-grown man’s larynx, that was just Mamet conceding to the whims of awesome-ness. This post is way to long, but fuck it, this kind of conversation is what talkbacks were invented for.

  7. But in REDBELT the sport we know as “MMA” is basically the villain. I liked FIGHTING and loved BLOOD AND BONE, but those are in the tradition of LIONHEART and other underground fighting movies and just kind of partially latch onto this “MMA” phenomenon. Other than that are there any good movies about this? I don’t know of any. There are tons of DTVs starring UFC guys, but after I couldn’t make it 15 minutes into a couple of them I stopped trying.

    If you know any good ones I’d love to find out about them.

  8. Reading Vern’s review on The Wrestler I was pointed at this one. I had not heard or read anything about it before. So when a few days later -like it was supposed to happen- I stumbled upon it in the video store I took it with me.

    I have something like a split personality where it comes to movies: half of me likes intellectual challenge and the honour of being allowed to think for myself and the other half likes Jerry Bruckheimer movies (that’s just an indication of course). In some cases both parts of me get something out of a movie (or a novel, or a theatre play), but usually it’s either intelligent or plainly entertaining. When I come home with rented video’s there are usually two distinct piles. (Since Seagology entered my life there are actually three piles.)

    Redbelt falls into the category of ‘both’. Just like The Wrestler. I really loved it. And the nice ‘don’t show everything’ like when the character Mike comes in his dojo before we (and he) learn the black belt police officer has killed himself, and the scene after that where we only get to see the evidence of that for about two seconds through an open door.

  9. Man, I loved this film.
    Keep the good job, amigo.

  10. I’m an asshole for not seeing this in the theater.

    I apologize to everyone involved.

    To whom shall I send my $6.50?

    (I’m a matinee man. Sorry.)

  11. SPOILERS (for tons of movies)- Bear with me here – you know how some people say the last scene of Taxi Driver with Cybil Shepard was a dream? Or how the beginning of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was really the end and was also a dream for one of the characters? I normally hate that shit but I seriously thought the ending of Redbelt was so ridiculous, so OUT THERE, so different from the rest of the movie that I’m convinced it all took place in Mike Terry’s mind. Kinda like that dream scene in JCVD where he saves the day then high fives the SWAT team dude.

    Seriously – how did every minor character throughout the movie, from David Paymer’s lowly loan shark to the movie consultant friend end up w/ ringside seats at the end? Why in the blue hell would those guys give him the Redbelt? (I know WHY they did- upholding the honor, etc.. but how did they know he deserved it?) Why didn’t they simply think he was a dude who flaked out of an undercard match, beat up some cops, then choked out the main eventer in the hallway? If they had the power of the audience and knew the main eventer/promotion was shady, why would they be involved in this shit anyway? Why would no security stop the fight? Why would they lower the mic down for this crazy dude who just ruined the main event in the ring like he was Michael Buffer or Mr. Kennedy or some shit?

    After seeing Terry get shat on the entire movie for the entire running time, the last 5 minutes of this movie is way too happy, way too much pure wish-fulfillment to have actually happened. It’d be like if The Wrestler ended with Randy doing the best Ram Jam of all time off the top rope, winning the world title, and his daughter popped up in the audience for a hug. I hate to say it but I think Mike Terry got choked out, never did the wall-flip, and the last 5 minutes was a dream. Which actually makes a depressing movie even more depressing.

    *On a side note, I sorta do want Vern’s idea of a Mike Terry series to happen. The way how Rambo II took the drama and pathos of First Blood and turned it into a good popcorn flick – shit, I’ll see Terry: Redbelt Part II any day.

  12. neal2zod- I can’t speak for every aspect of your post, but about how all the characters showed up: every single one of those characters was connected with the fighting scene. Paymer may have been a loan shark, but he was a loan shark who took bets on fights, of course he would be there for a big fight.

    And he’s still fucked at the end. He’s still in huge amounts of debt, his wife fucked him over, his prized student killed himself. If the cop’s wife had shown up at the edn to tell Terry she forgave him, maybe I would buy into the whole “It’s a dream” reading.

  13. The reason things turn around at the end is because the whole story is based on the fighting style. He’s locked in a hold but he knows the escape. He improves the position.

    On the DVD Mamet addresses the question of security not stopping him by telling a joke. But basically the answer is – a whole bunch of people *did* try to stop him, and they all got beat up. What more is there to explain?

    As for the redbelt, it’s “The Old Man” who gives him the belt. The Old Man represents the roots of jujitsu, and that’s why it upsets Mike that “you dragged the old man out here for this bullshit.” He doesn’t want the martial art to be corrupted by all this business and dishonesty, so the fact that the old man gives him the belt is double moving. Not only does he stand up for honor, but he is recognized for it.

  14. I finally, finally saw this.

    Someone once said that writers can’t be precious with their characters. They have to be willing to bring them to their lowest ebb just to see how they will react. Is MIke Terry’s reaction brave or noble? No, but it is correct.

    Powerful film. Loved it.

    Caveat: I don’t think anyone would go for the three marble system in real life.

  15. So I’m late to the party as always, I actually saw this when it came out but I’m only commenting on it now.

    Great review Vern, I think you really got to the heart of the movie.

    And that’s kind of the thing, isn’t it? This movie really has heart.

    I was blown away by Chiwitel Ejiofor’s performance, he’s been excellent in everything I’ve seen him in, but this was really something. I would also really recommend Dirty Pretty Things, it’s not action at all but it’s a good thriller and he’s pretty incredible in it.

    I’d love to see more movies in this vein, but with maybe a little more action and with a more classical approach to filming the action.

    Imagine Isaac Florentine directing a movie with a script like this and some of these actors? (The actors he has worked with are great but I’d love to see Ricky Jay or somebody like that show up in one of his movies)

  16. I’m a better person than you because I saw this in the theatre on opening day. I even bought my ticket online ahead of time, because I hate lines and expected a good crowd for “an MMA movie” in the town largely populated by Bragg boys. Other than my teammate & myself, there was one guy in the auditorium. Very sad. But at least I have the right to claim my superior Mamet-fandom.

    I like telling others that I’m better than them.

  17. Proof of my superiority, in the bottom right:

    http://i55.tinypic.com/2rbz444.jpg

  18. Mr 2Zod’s description of the film makes me want to see it! That sort of ridiculously-happy-ending-that-has-to-be-a-dream thing is one of the reasons why I liked Observe and Report so much.

    Question, is the movie good enough to overlook how insane and awful Mamet has become lately? I’d hate to give money to someone like that.

  19. SPOILERS: The much-loved Bad Lieutenant: POCNO has the same kind of ending too. By the time the police chief who’s been yelling at Cage the entire time shows up with a big grin on his face and his suddenly his best bud, I realized something was up. (I guess you could argue Inception had the same ending, how everyone is grinning and Watanabe wakes up with a cell phone ALREADY IN HIS HAND and immediately makes the phone call Dicaprio has been waiting for the whole movie)

    And Casey, I went back and re-read my comments and I hope it doesn’t come across like I didn’t like the movie, I liked it alot and I think it’s nowhere near as show-offy and smarmy as Heist and while I think it falls apart, it does so in a more interesting way than the way Spartan falls apart. Besides, the acting is great and I think that one training scene with Chiwetel and Emily Mortimer is fantastic.

  20. Just saw this recently and I’m pretty sure its one of the best movies ever.

  21. I just caught this film randomly on television, and while I liked it for the most part, I have to agree with Patrick in saying that the ending made absolutely no sense to me.

    See, I get that that is clearly what is supposed to be the case, but lets look at it logically from “The Old Man’s” perspective. He’s observing a show of MMA matches. Then some Mike guy who is announced as having bailed on his fight then comes out towards the arena beating the crap out of a fighter. Mike knocks out the guy he’s assaulting, then walks to the ring. That’s it (as far as anyone in the arena knows). Sure, Mike was fighting for honor, but being that he had yet to communicate to anyone in the arena what his deal is, to them he’s just a guy who chickened out on his match, then came back for some street-style brawling, interrupting an MMA event. So how does “The Old Man” know that Mike is worth handing the redbelt to? This one moment killed my love of the film to that point.

  22. I just caught this film randomly on television, and while I liked it for the most part, I have to agree with Patrick in saying that the ending made absolutely no sense to me.

    As for the redbelt, it’s “The Old Man” who gives him the belt. The Old Man represents the roots of jujitsu, and that’s why it upsets Mike that “you dragged the old man out here for this bullshit.” He doesn’t want the martial art to be corrupted by all this business and dishonesty, so the fact that the old man gives him the belt is double moving. Not only does he stand up for honor, but he is recognized for it.

    See, I get that that is clearly what is supposed to be the case, but lets look at it logically from “The Old Man’s” perspective. He’s observing a show of MMA matches. Then some Mike guy who is announced as having bailed on his fight then comes out towards the arena beating the crap out of a fighter. Mike knocks out the guy he’s assaulting, then walks to the ring. That’s it (as far as anyone in the arena knows). Sure, Mike was fighting for honor, but being that he had yet to communicate to anyone in the arena what his deal is, to them he’s just a guy who chickened out on his match, then came back for some street-style brawling, interrupting an MMA event. So how does “The Old Man” know that Mike is worth handing the redbelt to? This one moment killed my love of the film to that point.

  23. RM – I always assumed that he had studied under ‘The Old Man’, but it’s a good point because I’m not sure if the movie ever explicitly states that. I think I just inferred it due to the familiarity displayed in calling him that.

  24. The next time I watch it, I’m going to focus on the fatal flaw that his code of honor saves him from: the way that he gets dazzled by glamour.

    He’s got the hot wife whose ass I think he checks out. And although he doesn’t buy into the Hollywood bullshit quite as literally as she does, he’s not immune to it, giving script notes with little prompting. He exhibits pride when asked about his clever, original* training method. He readily plays the role of hero and stubbornly refuses to relinquish the role of martyr. Even the act of living by a code of honor is, in and of itself, an incredibly romantic thing. And I think he even has a nice jacket? Plus, he is really excited when recounting his day on the film set, though that has as much to do with seeing his old friend as them using his suggestions. Because the motherfucker is all heart. I can’t quite articulate it yet, but I think that’s what all of that stems from, a mad excess of heart.

    * Or am I misremembering it? Did he develop it, or was it something that he picked up as a part of his own training? If I were in that situation, it would be so much worse to have something that I didn’t invent stolen from me.

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