In the story of a purist-minded jiu-jitsu instructor trying to keep his distance from the vulgar commercialism of arena-style martial arts competition, David Mamet may have found the ideal metaphor for his own relationship with mainstream Hollywood. An absorbing and colorful, if not particularly convincing, excursion into a demi-monde of fighters, scammers, promoters and self-styled modern samurai, “Redbelt” gives the impression of Mamet coyly toying with the idea of making a populist little-man-against-the-system sports melodrama without actually attempting to create a film for the masses. Result offers solid midrange specialty-realm potential for this Sony Classics release, which world preemed at the Tribeca fest.
What keeps the film in Mamet rather than “Rocky” territory is that the hero’s motivations stem from intellectual and philosophical beliefs, rather than from the emotional need to prove something to himself or a crass desire for fame and fortune. Master jiu-jitsu teacher Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), aided by his wife Sondra (Alice Braga), struggles to make ends meet at his small academy in a seedy section of West Los Angeles.
Mike’s financial difficulties stem directly from his quasi-holy, anti-mercenary beliefs. Operating in the enormous shadow of the Ultimate Fighting and mixed martial arts phenomenon, Mike defiantly refuses to prep students for such contests. Fond of Eastern-style aphorisms, he insists he does not teach pupils to compete. Rather, “I train people to prevail,” adding his belief that, if your mental state is correct, “There is no situation you cannot turn to your advantage.”
Mike’s attitudes regarding control, one-upsmanship and mental game-playing neatly tie in with motifs Mamet has employed many times before. But while the structure, centered on protags becoming increasingly desperate as successive rugs are pulled out from under their feet, is familiar, the feel is different this time due to the physicality of the milieu.
Downward spiral of events that sucks in numerous characters is triggered by a bizarre moment in which high-strung attorney Laura (Emily Mortimer) happens into Mike’s place one evening and accidentally sets off a cop’s gun, shattering the storefront’s plate glass window. As a courtesy, the cop, Joe (Max Martini), agrees not to report it, but his graciousness sets off a fateful chain of events that, among other things, backs Mike and Sondra up against the financial wall.
At first, Mike thinks he might find his way out of his desperate straits courtesy of movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen), whose neck he saves one night at a bar. Smothering Mike with gratitude, Chet invites him and his wife to dinner, entices him with a big film job and sends him an expensive watch, while Chet’s wife (Rebecca Pidgeon) embraces Sondra as a new partner in a fashion line.
Mike’s inherent goodwill soon puts him and Sondra deeper in the hole than ever, leaving them at the mercy of some unsavory underworld types, including a loan shark (David Paymer) and a fight promoter (Ricky Jay). Latter offers Mike a way to clear his debts by entering him in a televised martial arts tournament promising a $50,000 payday.
For a guy like Mike, who even his wife admits is “too pure” for this world, such a sellout is unthinkable. The way Mamet resolves this “art versus commerce” dilemma is almost too clever for the film’s own good, suggesting that, considering Mike’s view of invariably being able to “prevail” if not “win,” you can always find a way to have your cake and eat it too.
Would that this were true, and that the action-packed finale were more convincing and better filmed. Not only is the climactic turn of events unlikely, but the coverage seems as hasty and haphazard as the impromptu event itself, creating an uncertain, tentative feel that emphasizes the story’s status as an intellectual fairytale.
Although the dialogue is far from Mamet’s pungent, vulgar best, the film is often engaging, thanks to the story’s varied social structure, some solid individual scenes and a raft of fine actors playing tasty characters. The always impressive Ejiofor anchors the picture as the stoical Mike, whose values just don’t gibe with the omnipresent commercial juggernauts of big-time sports and Hollywood. Allen slips nicely, if unexpectedly, into Mamet’s universe as a celebrity accustomed to dealing with people who can be bought, while Jay, Paymer and Joe Mantegna, the latter as Chet’s smooth front man, reliably express the familiar moral contours of the everyday world as Mamet sees it.
Pic looks sharp on a budget.