Plot: Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a stoic martial arts instructor, finds himself drawn into the corrupt mixed martial arts competitive circuit in order to settle a debt.
Review: A martial arts film directed by David Mamet? While initially this may seem like a pretty wacky idea, it's actually not as much a stretch as it seems. According to the press kit, Mamet has studied Jiu-jitsu for years, and the stoic philosophy behind most traditional forms of martial arts has been working it's way into his films for years (SPARTAN in particular- which featured a hero who was like a modern day samurai).
Make no mistake- while this is a film that takes place in the martial arts community, it's definitely not a straight martial arts film. It's a Mamet film through and through. There are no long drawn out fight scenes, but rather a few quick fights that may seem unimpressive to the average viewer. Mamet is not really interested in staging elaborate action scenes and it shows. He spends his time focusing on characterization and dialogue- and really, it's the drawn out Mamet-ian conversations that are the true action scenes.
For me, Mamet is a real hit and miss director. While I generally enjoy his films, I find that at times his stylized dialogue comes off as precious and pretentious. I absolutely hated his film, HEIST, and I thought that STATE & MAIN, while cute, was wildly over praised. I was, however, a huge SPARTAN fan, and I'm happy to say that REDBELT is almost (but not quite) as good as SPARTAN.
Mamet's dialogue, while still very distinctive, is a lot more naturalistic than usual, and helping matters is the fact that he has an absolutely first rate cast delivering it. Chiwetel Ejiofor is quickly establishing himself as one of the best actors of his generation, and he gives a terrific performance as Mike Terry- our conflicted, but stoic and pure hero. Not only can he spout off Mamet dialogue like it's the most natural thing in the world, but he also comes off very well during the (few) fight scenes. Supposedly Ejiofor has no previous martial arts training, but this is not obvious at all while watching the film.
Supporting Ejiofor are Mamet regulars Joe Mantegna, Rebecca Pidgeon, David Paymer & Ricky Jay (the only one missing is William H. Macy)- who are real pros when it comes to performing Mamet, and play the seedy Hollywood types that seduce and attempt to destroy our moral hero. I also quite liked Brazilian beauty Alice Braga & British thesp Emily Mortimer as the women in Terry's life. Braga plays his surprisingly shrewd wife, while Mortimer plays an emotionally damaged woman who's given a new lease on life through Terry's teachings. The movie also features a rare serious turn by Tim Allen, who plays a sleazy, pampered Hollywood action star (I wonder who Mamet based this character on?). A bunch of personalities from the MMA fight circuit also pop up in the film, including UFC champ Randy Couture- who plays himself.
Also worth noting is the terrific musical score by Stephen Endelman, which sounds like it could have been pulled from an Akira Kurosawa film. For me, REDBELT is an easy recommendation. If you walk into REDBELT expecting a non-stop martial arts thrill ride- you're bound to be disappointed. However, if you are a Mamet fan, or truly interested in the philosophy behind the martial arts world- it's a must see.
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