release date: may 2nd, 2008
production budget: $7 million
u.s. gross: $2.3 million
foreign: $0.3 million
looking up randy couture on imdb for his die-hard-on-a-plane dtv movie reminded me that redbelt is the only david mamet movie i haven’t seen. turns out this is not the first time they worked together, couture was in a couple episodes of tv’s the unit created by mamet. mamet has long been a personal favorite, whose batting average is up there with hitchcock. sure, it’s a shame what happened to him but he hasn’t (so far) made a movie based simply on his political views. he’s not making an american carol or adapting altas shrugged…although it would be interesting to have mamet rewriting ayn rand, it’ll be at least three times shorter (one crappy movie instead of three) and there will be more beautifully written profanities. but let’s not give them any ideas.
chiwetel ejiofor (amistad, dirty pretty things, children of men, 2012, salt) plays jiu-jitsu instructor mike terry. while we can see that he is a great teacher and martial artist, and he has the same calm, philosophical attitude towards martial arts as bruce lee, he is not really making money off his studio. and we can see why: his star student is a cop named joe (max martini, also from the unit) who mike treats more as a friend than a customer (mike also got joe a job as a bouncer at his brother-in-law’s bar); mike’s also charitable to strangers who just walked in from the street, in this case a frazzled woman played by emily mortimer (disney’s the kid, tv’s the newsroom, match point, shutter island, hugo). alice braga from city of god, i am legend, and predators plays mike’s wife, who is more than frustrated by the lack of funds her husband’s noble pursuit is bringing in. this night of seemingly random events also lead mike to an encounter with an action star played by tim allen.
as with most mamet movies, the unexpected elements are part of the enjoyment so i will not go into any more details (though the u.s. movie poster and dvd cover use a picture from the climax). structurally it’s perhaps closest to the overlooked the spanish prisoner in that the first half sets things up and the dominos fall during the second. though unlike that movie, redbelt is not really focused on the con games, and not as tightly constructed.
most of the lead actors are newcomers to the mamet world, and while they handle the mamet speak decently, there is nothing quite like hearing his words coming from mamet vets like ricky jay, joe mantegna, david paymer, and matt malloy. there is also a cameo from ed o’neill, mostly known for tv sitcoms married with children and modern family, but was also in mamet’s spartan and the spanish prisoner. on the commentary, mamet said that he wanted o’neill in the movie because he’s the one who introduced mamet to brazilian jiu-jitsu. according to imdb, o’neill earned his black belt in 2007.
as he did with the gritty cop drama (homicide), heist genre (heist), special ops genre (spartan), odd couple comedies (things change), and farcical ensemble comedies (state and main), this is a mametized fight/punchfighting movie. yes, our hero is an expert in the field and did not want to fight, even though we know there will be a final fight at the end (forced to fight wouldn’t have been an inaccurate title). what’s unusual for this genre is the sets of events that lead to the fights. it would be hard to find a film in this genre that are able to create such well drawn characters. he also wisely rejects clunky expositions and the prerequisite numbers of fight scenes (if only more screenwriters follow his rules on storytelling). there are also hints of the samurai/western movies especially with the recurring taiko drum beats.
i think what motivated mamet, other than the martial arts itself (he has been studying jiu-jitsu years prior to making redbelt) is the philosophy. it’s not a case where hollywood picks up whatever the latest fad is in a given field and make a movie out of it, with an action scene every ten minutes. like all great movies, it attempts to examine the nature of good and bad, only this time it uses jiu-jitsu. like things change, glengarry glen ross, and the spanish prisoner, it’s a test of purity and morality. inside his studio, mike can impart and live by all the theories and philosophies, but what ultimately matters is how he lives while being tested outside his studio, on the streets, and in real life, especially when money comes into play. unlike his creation, mike terry, who’s able to stick with his honorable principles and remain true to himself, mamet abandoned and changed long held personal beliefs when tested by reality.
i don’t know how the usual action movie fans will like it, there aren’t too many action scenes and they are shot a bit too close to see all the moves. as a mamet movie, i wish it was more tightly built. many things set up in the first half are either not followed up, unexplained, or too obvious. when everything’s finally revealed, there are bigger holes and gaps than the spanish prisoner that almost break the movie. there is a lack of quotable memorable lines and monologues that we’ve come to expect. on the other hand, the characters here, especially ejiofor and mortimer, feel more like flesh and blood human characters than most mamet movies, where they functioned as chess pieces. it’s a pretty good character-driven noir-ish drama but i wouldn’t put it amongst mamet’s best. but like hitchcock, and woody allen, even a lesser mamet effort is still better than most movies.
p.s. the dvd commentary with mamet and couture has some pretty interesting tidbits about the making of the movie, mostly from mamet. though couture doesn’t say much, it makes me like him even more. he shows a genuine interest in filmmaking. he also has better line delivery in this movie than hijacked (2012), probably because he plays a fight commentator.
p.p.s. another revelation performance-wise is tim allen. it’s a small part and not a comedic role. it’s probably the second best tim allen performance, between galaxy quest and big trouble.
p.p.p.s. action fans may recognize a couple of names in the stunt credits. one is simon rhee, brother of phillip rhee. the other is ahmed best, yes, jar jar binks.
Search for Redbelt on CanIStream.It