Movies You Might Have Missed: Redbelt

Release Date: 2008
Rating: R
Length: 99 minutes
Director: David Mamet
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Emily Mortimer
Language: English, Portuguese, Japanese
Country: USA

Redbelt feels very different from most David Mamet films largely because of the ending. I’ll do my best not to spoil it, but I will say up front that if you’re familiar with his other work you’ll likely be a bit surprised because he’s trained you to expect something different.

Chiwetel Ojiofor plays a warrior and teacher of warriors. He’s an ex-SOF operator who now teaches martial arts in Los Angeles. He has little money which is a constant source of friction between him and his ambitious wife whose brothers all make a good living from their martial arts. Ojiofor instead lives more like a monk, teaches a life dedicated to the pursuit of victory, and enforces on himself and his students an attitude of persistence. Part of this involves regular sparring with one person or the other being assigned a random handicap. (Binding an arm or a leg, for example.)

A couple chance encounters with a celebrity and a frightened woman lead, at least at first, to opportunity. At first, it appears there may be chances on the horizon for him to escape the money troubles that plague him. With an almost Greek inevitability, however, downfall follows. Betrayal and misfortune drive him to the edge of despair. He becomes desperate for money; not for himself, but to fulfill his obligations to others. Even though he views competition as being detrimental to good practice since one must stop short of going all out for victory, he endures the humiliation he feels and enters an MMA competition in which his brother-in-law will participate. But events are not through with him yet.

The logic of some of the story seems questionable to me, but it’s really not important. The tale is about tragedy and persistence, betrayal and loyalty, honor and shame. The actors and their roles are more archetypal rather than real people. The movie is about ideals and concepts as much as the particular characters.

Mamet gets a pretty good performance out of Tim Allen in a non-comedic part, Joe Mantegna and David Paymer show up in bit parts as well. The legendary Ricky Jay oozes across the screen as the smarmy fight promoter. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is a bit more uneven at making the Mamet dialogue really sing. John Machado in particular is out-classed in terms of acting, but he’s adequate as a brother-in-law to Ojiofor and a rival fighter..

This is a movie with a point of view, a particular opinion, and it is one to which I am sympathetic. The more you can understand and sympathize with that point of view yourself, the more, I suspect, you’ll enjoy the movie too.

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