Sunday, September 21, 2008

407 - Redbelt review

David Mamet’s “Redbelt” is about a man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) trying to live a lifestyle the outside world cares nothing about. His name is Mike Terry, and he’s a professional Ju-Jitsu instructor, skilled enough that promoters of mixed martial arts fights beg him to participate in matches.

Mike refuses; he follows an honor code that rejects competition as impure and stresses decency to others. But even as he practices the code without doubt or fail, everyone else he knows rejects it. How can an honor code work when you’re seemingly its only practitioner? Shut the outside world out, Mike tells his students, advice that has served his spirit well, but his marriage and finances poorly.

Mamet, that famously profane and gloomy playwright, stages the film’s plot through a series of developments that place increasingly greater strain on Mike, who nonetheless remains unshakably dedicated to his morals.

The details add up quickly. There’s an accidental shooting at his studio involving an unbalanced lawyer (Emily Mortimer). He saves the life of a movie star (Tim Allen) during a bar fight, who is at first very grateful, and then not so much. Mike attempts to help out his favorite student, a cop (Max Martini) seeking to emulate his principals, but these actions go awry for reasons beyond his control, furthering already dire monetary troubles. And his wife (Alice Braga) has sickened of scraping by and borrowing from loan sharks to pay the bills. Mike’s dedication must have made him very appealing when they got married, but when time has past and the bank is broken, his behavior must seem self-destructive.

Mike isn’t savvy with people, and through the course of the film he must awkwardly maneuver through their deceptions and conspiracies. He’s a fearsome opponent in a fight, but his self-control cripples him in a way; no one is afraid of a martial arts master who refuses to use his skills unless physically attacked. Mamet’s films are always populated with characters who lie and swindle others, and despite Mike’s fortitude, he’s ill equipped to handle what comes his way here.

Much of the reason “Redbelt” works is the performance of Ejiofor, a cool, controlled actor perhaps best known for playing menacing antagonists (see “Children of Men” and “Serenity”). Here, he takes his wealth of strength and makes it supremely effective when channeled through a character who only wants to live well and teach his craft to others. There are fight scenes, but he only strikes when necessary, does so dispassionately, and offers no apologies.

It’s unfortunate that Mamet’s character all come together at the end for a clumsy, surprisingly clichéd climax. You know the sort of movie fight scenes where everyone in the film gathers around to watch two men do battle? It’s one of those. Did the studio balk at the idea of financing a film without a lame finale and insist on this startlingly generic close? I have a hard time believing this was Mamet’s idea. A ironic way to end a film about honor, I suppose.


Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer said...

Often the current day movie hero or heroine has a laundry list of vices: drinking, cheating, lying, womanizing, etc. We are supposed to like them for their redeeming qualities. We are supposed to like them because we see our own weaknesses in the character. Refreshingly, the hero in “Redbelt” is a true hero, the type of person I would want my children to look up to. He is the kind of man who values honor above all else, a trait quickly disappearing in our culture.

I also thought Emily Mortimer was outstanding in this movie. Her role seemed insignificant at first, but her character played an important role in the overall theme.

I saw this one at the theater - knew nothing about it - it surprised me. You make a great point about the Hollywood ending, but overall, I thought it was a well done, thought provoking film.


Ryan said...

James, it seems like you're attracting more and more readers. Kudos.

A small note as your former editor, I think the first sentence is supposed to read, "David Mamet’s “Redbelt” is about a man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) trying to live a lifestyle the outside world he cares nothing about.

James said...

Heidi: Excellent point. I like how the film demonstrates that Mike suffers greatly because of his values, but ultimately prevails, at least in some way. At the same time, he is believable, not for a moment seeming like some cardboard movie creation designed to extol virtues.

Ryan: Thanks! I think the sentence reads like I want it to. But I rarely edit my own work, so I unfortunately spend a lot of time going back and correcting errors after they're already published.