Mixed Martial Arts have been in the spotlight ever since the emergence of UFC and some Hollywood films such as the Karate Kid clone "Never Back Down" (which I have also reviewed) have attempted to capitalize on its popularity. Writer/director David Mamet's "REDBELT" may well be the best U.S. filmmakers have come up with in regards to the world of Jiu-Jitsu and mixed martial arts. The film is about honor and integrity, it cleverly blends the Japanese "code of the Samurai" into the dark side of the world of corruption in competitive sports. The film offers something to think about and for martial artists, it can get under your skin.
Mike Terry (Cheitel Ejiofor) is a well-respected but struggling teacher of Jiu-Jitsu. Terry has his own code of honor and would rather be poor than to compromise his integrity, much to the dismay of his wife Sondra (Alice Braga). His life intertwines with a student/policeman, a fragile young attorney (Emily Mortimer) and a hotshot actor named Chet Frank (Tim Allen). Frank becomes a witness to Terry's fighting skills when he assists him resolve a barroom brawl, and offers him and his wife a business arrangement. However, things go from bad to worst, his ideas are stolen and certain things may well force Terry to compete for money--something he does not believe in.
Rather than focusing on dynamic, jaw-dropping action sequences, "Redbelt" is more a riveting character study of one man. The film may be simple in terms of plot and some key elements may be a little unoriginal, but the storytelling is structured well and the script does provide the necessary emotions to add to its effectiveness. The old adage; "Good Guys finish last..." may come to mind, but what that phrase doesn't complete is that "..but good guys also guarantees their soul.." and I believe in that. The film is nicely paced and the proceedings does exactly what it is trying to say. While Terry is admired by students and other folks, his strong integrity may just hamper his success when it comes to the real world of money and material needs. Mike Terry is a man torn between his principles and his obligations. I truly love his principle of "competition is not a fight, I teach my students to prevail but not necessarily to fight". I also admired Mamet's definition of what exactly a "black belt" represents philosophically and that a belt is just something to hold up your pants.
The film is a real densely executed character study and the spirit of martial arts, and of course, textbook manipulations would occur that would lead to its gripping encounter. The film does offer some of the most realistic fight sequences I've seen on camera. The moves are on display as Terry fights for his goal, although Asian martial arts films will provide a more entertaining experience. I've read that actor Cheitel Ejiofor trained in London, under Carlos Gracie in his academy, and the man definitely owned his role. This was a very good advantage as it did help the actor be more convincing in his role, since he did train in one of the best schools of Jiu-Jitsu. He knows the moves and it showed that he does, I bet the stunt coordinators appreciated this fact as it would be easier to choreograph the art's very complex moves.
REDBELT also delves into the spirit of Jiu-Jitsu as well as the way of the samurai, and it also explores the corruption of money-driven competition; "everything that involves money is fixed" (we all know this but we just tend to deny it). The film shows money-driven competition's ugly face, and it is a very bleak view that is similar to the world of boxing. Quite a real gutsy move in the part of David Mamet. Surprisingly, Tim Allen does a great job as Chet Frank, at first impression, I thought he was miscast but he fit his role. Emily Mortimer may seemed a little "doopie" in the beginning but she also contributes to the film's emotional impact. The film does have a solid cast that reflects its solid direction.
Mamet definitely knew what he wanted to do with the film, the man wants to communicate the integrity and honor of a good man in a very cynical and materialistic world and he does so; the film is structured well and the writing is sharp. The circumstances that led to Mike being pushed to a corner was convincing enough and the links between the characters were credible. The spirit of Jiu-Jitsu is treated as if it is "hallowed ground" when it is within the confines of Terry's school; men and women can find themselves inside while leaving the real world behind.
The film's climax may leave some audiences asking for more and some may even say it seems a bit too cheesy, but if you were paying attention to its entirety, it does make a fitting ending. The climactic fight that occurs outside the ring does effectively represent just what Mike Terry stands for. "RedBelt" may not have that many sequences of fisticuffs and those who are looking for an abundance of choreographed martial arts are better off looking elsewhere. However, if you are looking for a character-driven, thinking man's martial arts drama, then this film will not disappoint.
REDBELT effectively portrays the beliefs and the philosophy of martial arts. As someone often told me; "the measure of a man is not to be judged with the size of his wallet, but what he holds in his heart; if he works hard enough and never compromises his beliefs and integrity, then he is beautiful..."
Recommended! [4- Stars]