Film | Martial Art: Redbelt review


Exploring themes of morality, masculinity and greed with an unflinching gaze, Redbelt is a gripping intellectual thriller, writes Paul Fennessy.

In acclaimed playwright David Mamet’s most recently published book, Bambi vs. Godzilla (a scathing indictment of the movie business), he explains how it requires “a hero… to avoid arrogance and despair in the face of human corruptibility”. Conveniently enough, this assertion also acts as a concise plot synopsis of his latest cinematic effort- Redbelt.

The basic story concerns Mike Terry (played with distinction by Chiwetel Ejiofor), an idealistic and highly skilled jujitsu (a form of mixed martial arts) teacher who due to a series of unfortunate events, falls on hard times.

When his financial situation becomes perilous, he is urged by all those around him to forsake the life he loves and succumb to the tawdry, but financially rewarding world of televised jujitsu fights.

Essentially, Redbelt works well because it is Mamet playing to his strengths

Therein lays his dilemma, as a decision to participate in these glorified money-making exercises would represent the very antithesis of his inveterate beliefs regarding the purity of martial arts and the unethical nature of competition.

The film, therefore, is about jujitsu fighting in the same sense that Citizen Kane is about the newspaper business, or The Sopranos is about gangsters. The sport merely serves as a convenient device upon which larger questions about humanity can be examined, namely whether it is necessary for a person to sacrifice nobility and sincerity in order to prevail in modern society.

Consequently, when you consider Mamet’s notorious disaffection with Hollywood’s monetary machinations, along with the fact that the film is overrun with dictatorial movie producers and morally vacuous fight promoters, it is difficult not to view Redbelt as anything more than a thinly veiled diatribe against those conniving corporate fat cats which he so vehemently despises.

Nonetheless, the movie is infused with enough scabrous wit and compelling action to ensure that the storytelling never seems preachy or self-indulgent. While the manner in which the plot unfolds occasionally feels contrived and the ending proves to be patently underwhelming, the film is still far superior to the average thriller.

Essentially, Redbelt works well because it is Mamet playing to his strengths. Hallmarks of the director’s work including acute dialogue, a uniformly superb supporting cast (featuring a surprisingly watchable Tim Allen) and some of the most determinedly butch characters to ever grace the silver screen all evoke a sense of nostalgia in those already acquainted with Mamet’s work. Moreover, the film also serves as the perfect introduction to anyone who has yet to discover the director’s cinematic canon.

Alas it is almost fitting that this film, which surreptitiously laments the difficulty in finding a happy medium between art and commerce, is likely to yield only modest box office drawings due to the paucity of stars involved, as well as its low key nature. Yet for those seeking drama with an above average I.Q., Redbelt is hard to beat.

Rating: 4/5