‘Redbelt’ on DVD – A second round with Mamet’s magnificent martial arts drama

David Mamet’s Redbelt arrives on DVD this week. I take the occasion of reviewing the film to work through some of my thoughts on what I believe is the smartest, sharpest and most unashamedly pure melding of personal filmmaking and genre filmmaking since Walter Hill’s Undisputed, another magnificent fight film. I don’t know that the film was misunderstood and I haven’t sifted through the critical reception, but the film was a financial underachiever (it earned less than $3 million in ticket sales in he U.S.) with few champions. Here’s my shot at championing it.

Mamet's honorable warrior in a dishonorable world
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry: Mamet's honorable warrior in a dishonorable world

Mamet’s stage reputation is built on male dramas of wit and wills and one-upmanship, battles fought almost exclusively through his glorious dialogue, pushed far beyond any sense of realism into a verbal symphony of intertwining solos built on staccato bursts of profane words elevated to terse poetry. As a filmmaker, however, his most interesting films are his genre picture – heist films, murder mysteries, con movies, all generally male-centric narratives with a strong physical component (from subtle sleight-of-hand to bold showings of strength) that he reworks with his own brand of professional pride, machismo and male honor. It’s a man’s world and he revels in it.

In many ways, Redbelt is both a revival and a complete redefinition of the kind of film that Jean-Claude Van Damme cranked out in the eighties, the kind of thriller that pit fighters in matches in underground leagues and our honorable hero overcomes his disdain for such bloodsport to take revenge for the murder of a brother/friend in the ring. It’s a fight film, in Mamet’s own words, but in the distinctive martial arts world of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. And it’s a kind of samurai film, with Iraq vet and poor but proud Jiu-jitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, all quiet dignity and modesty) as his honorable warrior in a dishonorable world.

Mamet, of course, latches on to the philosophical grounding of martial arts that is always given lip service in such films, and then either ignored or bent to fit the revenge plots. But he also embraces the machismo of the genre in his own distinctive way: the confidence of strength, the courage of modesty, and the professional grace of a fighter who uses the least amount of effort and movement to achieve his goal. Mamet is a devotee to Jiu-jitsu and he gives it all his respect.

It’s glorious pulp fiction elevated to genre art, full of both Mamet’s cynicism about the corruption of big business (just substitute Hollywood for the martial arts league) and his romantic ideals of men in military service and men dedicated to a higher purpose. Mamet never manages to capture the fiery fury of a great martial arts battle; he’s no action director and shoots the choreography largely from the perspective of a TV spectator, direct and functional. But the screenplay is pure Mamet: characters trading questions that never get answered, lines repeated like a mantra, conversations like twin monologues in parallel dimensions that always manage to wind up back in the same universe.

The cast is in fine Mamet form, inhabiting his words and his conflicts as if they lived it. And it’s a marvelous cast, including Mamet favorite Joe Mantegna as a high-powered agent with a savage business sense, Tim Allen as a self-loathing actor in a war movie who can’t help but feel diminished in the company of true military veterans, Ricky Jay as the unapologetically manipulative showman of an event promoter, and Alice Braga as Mike’s wife, frustrated at unbending code and commitment and his refusal to grab on to this chance at success. Emily Mortimer is a troubled attorney who respects Mike’s sense of honor and loyalty and becomes his only ally when the businessmen attempt to intimidate him into submission.

A little sleight of hand
A little sleight of hand

Mamet loves to explore process and expose the way things work, and spends a lot of time elucidating the details setting up and promoting the big pay-per-view fight that will end the film, showing the promoters hatching ideas on finding a hook to give it an identity, and then create buzz to attract attention. These behind-the-scenes details are fascinating, but they also define the sensibilities of the characters involved in the enterprise, especially when Mamet reveals the sleight-of-hand twist that throws the entire bout in a whole new light. (In this case, it is a literal sleight-of-hand, which feels so right coming from an artist so fascinated by con artists and false identities, and who casts stage magician and raconteur Ricky Jay in so many films – including this one.)

There are, however, more ambiguous elements that complicate Mike’s journey and muddy the simple reading of the umblemished hero against all. Mike may be an idealist in a corrupt society, but he is also an idealist with little concern for taking care of himself and his family, financially speaking, in a material world. His own business, a martial arts training studio where he brings up his students like they were his apprentices, is broke and his wife sacrifices her own business funds to keep him from closing. You could say he’s “too pure” to be a businessman, a rather naive idea to stand in as a sign of his honor. That kind of honor comes at a cost to the people around him, a contradiction that Mamet only begins to explore when he reverts to the simple poles of loyalty and betrayal in the final act. It’s a frustration I never fully resolve, especially the way Mamet suggests (without quite saying it aloud) that Mike’s wife has betrayed Mike by allying herself with his enemies (the alternative is allowing her own business, already sacrificed to the breaking point to help Mike’s studio, to fail). But I manage to forgive these sleights given the genre and what Mamet does with it.

[SPOILER ALERT – read no further if you have not seen the film and don’t want to read about the final scenes.]

In classic martial arts movie fashion, the reluctant warrior is forced to fight for his honor and for his code and is honored for his skill with a public show of respect by the film’s representative of martial arts royalty. It’s more than a reward for skill. As presented in the film, it becomes a recognition of him putting himself on the line in defiance of the corruption of the sport, which when I first watched the film I found a gloriously romantic gesture that was thematically fabulous but made no narrative sense, because the Japanese champion couldn’t know of the mendacity and manipulation in the tournament that Mike was battling to expose. The climax was, to my mind, almost all theatrical gesture, hardly a crime in this genre, but lacking dramatic authenticity and ambiguity.

On second viewing, I realized that my whole reading was based on an assumption: that the champion did not know of the corruption of the competition. In David Mamet’s world, the true professionals are well aware of the realities of their professions. Looking again at the slack expression on the face of Enson Inoue (as title-fight headliner Taketa Morisaki), watching the private fight on a monitor in his locker room, what I initially dismissed as real-life mixed martial arts champion Inoue failing to show us the determination of a fighter preparing for a bout now was a lack a enthusiasm for a show that held no meaning. What I once saw as a blank expression now looked resigned. The humble formality of both Inoue and real-life Jiu-jitsu master (playing reluctant sport godfather Dan Insanto) passing their championship belts to Mike became that of compromised men passing the mantle to a samurai who brought honor back to a way of life that had become tainted by commerce and corruption.

There’s a disappointed realism behind the cynicism of entrepreneurs behind the big PPV martial arts smackdown, men sacrificing the honor of the sport for the money that can be generated by manipulating the drama of the fight, and a passionate idealism when it comes to military service and the soldier’s code. With Mike, a Desert Storm veteran himself, it combines with his code of honor as a Jiu-jitsu instructor and martial arts master to create a man of integrity so unbending he almost loses his business in the pursuit of honor.

(Parts of this piece come from reviews written for the Seattle P-I and seanax.com; details on the DVD release, including supplements, can be found on my DVD review on MSN Entertainment)