You can only say so much about a sport where the objective is to beat the absolute crap out of the other person.
When respected jujitsu master Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) eschews a lucrative prize fighting career in favour of opening a self-defence dojo, it appears that he has chosen a peaceful path in life. The dedicated martial artist’s fate takes an unanticipated turn, however, when he is manipulated into participating in ultimate fighting championships by a group of unscrupulous actors and fight promoters. Mike is way in over his head and tries to find whatever it is that he can do to bring back his old life that he knew and loved before it all went to shite.
It may sound pretty strange, but this martial arts film is written and directed by David Mamet. Yes, Glengarry Glen Ross-David Mamet. It may seem like a weird-fit to try on and get used to, but much to my surprise, as I’m pretty sure everybody else’s as well, but Mamet actually practices jiujitsu in real-life and considers it a nice hobby of his, when he isn’t writing out characters that say “fuck” a lot. But don’t worry, people, this more of a Mamet film than it is a carbon-copy of Never Back Down, but don’t be surprised if you can’t tell a total difference between the two.
Mamet’s dialogue in this flick is, once again, very well-written. This time, instead of being just another pile of snappy one-liners that Mamet just continues to toss at the audience, the dialogue here is more natural than you would expect from this dude and it works in it’s approach to this story. This isn’t your non-stop, kick-ass martial arts movie. Instead, it’s actually more character-based and has a story that may draw you in a lot more than the actual fight sequences themselves. And although that may turn people off expecting a bunch of karate chops and take-downs left and right, for me, I wasn’t bothered at all. In fact, it kept me more involved with what was going on because there should always be more back-story to any extreme sport, especially one like martial arts.
But even when the fight scenes do come onto the screen, they actually work and bring a lot of energy to this film mainly because Mamet is able to get so up-front and personal with each tussle. There’s not many fights (maybe about 3 or 4 in this hour, 34-minute movie) but whenever they came on, I liked it and I think it’s obvious that Mamet just enjoys the art of ultimate fighting. This really isn’t the type of film you just got forced to do and it’s apparent that Mamet wanted to do this film and his curiosity and attention to detail, pays off here. People do say “fuck”, a lot too, but not like you’d expect them to and it’s not all about the cursing that makes this movie work which is what I actually liked for a nice change-of-pace.
However, as good as the script was, I couldn’t help but think he tacked on way too much here with this simple story. The main story itself is pretty much about this guy who can kick anybody’s ass, gets into some major debt, and is trying to find a way out of it the hard way. This in and of itself is a pretty simple story and even though it may not be the most original ever in the whole, widest world, you would think Mamet’s skills as a writer would be definitely more than enough to save it from the same old shit we usually see. But Mamet doesn’t stop there and continues to go on and on and on with this story, almost to the point of where it’s random. He tries a little too hard with such a simple story about the underdog coming out on top, but adding so many characters, so many random twists, and so many consequences that could either happen this way, or not, and show how it effects the rest of the story. Seemed like way, way too much for a story like this and actually lost me a couple of times.
All of this wasn’t as terrible as I thought, until I got to the final act and that’s where I noticed that everything came full-circle for me. In a bad way, of course. The final act comes on pretty strong with the right bit of tension but Mamet pulls the rug from underneath us, gives us something to think about, and adds yet another twist to the already-confusing plot developments. But what I noticed about this ending is that I wasn’t as glued to the screen because Mamet had so much going on, that the central story itself just sort of gets lost in the muddle of it all. Surely, there must have been an easier way to get our main character back in the square-circle, without having to go through all of these life hurdles and surely, there must have been an less predictable and ludicrous ending like the one they have here. It could have just been simple, plaid, and usual, but that’s not how David Mamet rolls and whether or not you like that about this dude, is all up to what you prefer in life.
Mamet’s plot may get lost, but at least his characters stay true and that’s because of the performances from the stars involved. Mike Terry is an awesome role for Chiwetel Ejiofor because the guy, once again, gets to prove that he has what it takes to be a leading man and turn in a convincing performance, no matter what the movie or role may be. Not only can the guy spout-out Mamet-dialogue like it’s his job (technically, it was) but he also shows that he has a lot of great physical skills and it surprised me to hear that this dude didn’t have any previous martial arts training because he looked like a pro at what he was doing. Good thing that Mamet focused the film mostly on him, too.
The two females in Terry’s life are played by Alice Braga and Emily Mortimer, who are both good but aren’t given much to work with. Braga is Terry’s bitchy, money-hungry wife that would leave him in a heartbeat for some extra moolah, and Mortimer is Terry’s newly-found friend/student that is going through a rough time but her story never fully gets developed enough for us to care about her. Shame too, because both can give off some awesome work when they can. As for everybody else, you have the villains like Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Rodrigo Santoro, and surprisingly, Tim Allen who all turn in some good work as a bunch of shady baddies, but are just all over-the-place that it’s hard to declare which one was the “baddest”. My money is on Buzz Lightyear. That guy seems like a total dick behind closed doors.
Consensus: David Mamet definitely brings a lot of fun to this curious, passion-project of sorts but Redbelt features way too many ideas, twists, and characters going on at the same time, to do nothing else but add confusion and take away from the final-product. It’s not a thrill-ride, but a more-sophisticated look at marital arts, with the occasional beat-down here and there.
6 / 10 = Rental!!