Sat 10 May 2008
If you don’t stop acting up, we’re not stopping for ice cream on the way home.
Trying to market itself as an MMA film is David Mamet’s latest writing/directorial effort, “Redbelt”. I say “trying” because the film only happens to take place within the fringes of the fight world, instead being more about classic themes like honor and betrayal.
To pull a bait and switch between the marketing and the actuality isn’t what turned me off to the film. I’m an avid Mamet fan and had been looking forward to the film; his writing is usually precise and powerful, as he conveys a level of intelligence, and usually deception, through his characters that is so rare in today’s ‘crank out the fart jokes’ and ‘shots to the nuts’ mentality. However, everyone is bound to make a clunker in their career and “Redbelt” is Mamet’s beat up Chevy Nova.
The film centers on jiu jitsu instructor Mike Terry, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. He runs a small school with little regard to making money, being far more concerned with the code of the fighter than in how to get ahead in life. This of course rubs his wife (Alice Braga) the wrong way, who is looking to move up in the world. Through circumstance, Terry finds himself in the fast lane, being offered a way into the big time via Hollywood actor Chet Frank (Tim Allen). As he begins to peek into that world, he finds little honor there and devises a way to regain it.
I think that synopsis was about as bad as the film but I’ve lost my patience here. I’m just so disappointed at the end result. Like most Mamet films, the film’s initial premise becomes incidental to the larger issues and conspiracies at hand. That would have been okay … if everything wasn’t cobbled together in such a bland, bewildering and bizarre fashion.
As Terry takes on the MMA fight promoters, the double-crossing begins. You see the betrayals coming and even though they’re significant enough to pass, the manner in which things get resolved are inane. The last thirty minutes of the film unravel any good Mamet had layered with scenes that don’t have any momentum or impact.
I was watching the “climactic” fight and I couldn’t have cared less. Once the fight’s over, that it. You can assume that honor has been restored but you won’t care because there are so many plot elements that were introduced but not resolved that trying to make sense of things will hurt your head.
Tim Allen’s character simply disappears from the film once his camp decides to turn their back on Ejiofor, there’s never a confrontation. Ejiofor and Braga’s marriage appears to be on the outs but there’s never a confrontation. Ejiofor manages to show up the MMA fight promoters, but there’s never a confrontation.
The underlying engine that drives film is conflict. Mamet hints at it and every once in a while throws in the physical manifestation of that with an actual fight but even that is unsatisfying as all the fights are shot too close, letting the audience know that the combatants are actors first, play-fighters second. The powerful, dialogue driven face-offs that other Mamet films like “Glengarry Glen Ross”, “Spartan” or “The Edge” display with gusto just are not here.
I can throw out one positive in that the acting is good all around. Ejiofor is always superb and his performance keeps the film from being a complete waste of time. Even Tim Allen, not normally known for dramatic work, does a nice job here. Ricky Jay probably has the best scenery chewing lines to spout off and therein becomes the most energetic character. Still, even with good actors, and a few real fighters thrown into the mix, I came away from the film thinking I should have watched something else.
“Redbelt” tries to be a Western Samurai film, with its roots in a Brazilian martial art. Instead, it falls on its face by the third act and all I can muster up is a 1 out of 5. I’ve seen a number of positive reviews to the film, as other critics extol the virtues of Mamet’s honor code. I can see what he was going for but it’s all so lackluster and unsatisfying that I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone I know … unless I didn’t like them.