People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Friday, August 29, 2008
  DVD Pick: Redbelt
Picked up a copy of writer/director David Mamet’s Redbelt on DVD this week after catching it in theatres earlier this year. I really like Mamet’s movies (though I confess that aside from James Foley’s excellent film adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross, I’m pretty unfamiliar with his stage work, which is where he made his name; I’ve just never been a theatre guy). It’s a wonderfully taut dramatic thriller about a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu master (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who’s fantastic in everything I’ve ever seen him in…this guy’s got an Oscar in his future) who refuses to compete in professional mixed martial arts fights because of his philosophical belief that competition weakens the fighter. After he saves an aging movie star (Tim Allen, who, I was surprised to learn, can actually act) from an ass-whipping in a bar, he finds himself drawn into, if you'll pardon the cliché, a web of deception.

I really enjoyed Redbelt, but it’s a bit of a strange beast; it doesn’t really fit into any one genre neatly. It’s sort of a sports movie and sort of a thriller, but if I had to pin it down I’d say it’s a cross between a con movie and a samurai movie. Ejiofor’s character is defined by the rigid code he lives by, and the idea that he’s part of a dying breed – in this case, people with real honour and integrity – is reminiscent of many classic samurai films. Though Redbelt is set against the world of martial arts, it’s not really a “fight movie” (though Ejiofor does get down, most impressively at the end); Mamet’s far more interested in the philosophical aspects of the martial arts, and jiu-jitsu in particular is ripe with thematic possibilities. It’s not about brute force, but rather using an opponent’s strength against them. As Ejiofor tells Tim Allen, “You let him use his strength, and you use your understanding.”

One of Mamet’s signatures is his dialogue, and while Redbelt doesn’t have as much of the super-stylized interactions featured in a lot of his previous works (legend has it he would make his actors rehearse against a metronome), but it’s still filled with great lines and tense exchanges. Mamet regular
Ricky Jay in particular is fantastic as an MMA promoter who seems to be equal parts Dana White and Vince McMahon. (Though as much as Mamet is clearly a big fan of MMA, the fictional league featured in the film has far more WWE-style pageantry than any real-life MMA promotion I’ve ever heard of, and I follow the sport.) The dialogue, like most of Mamet's work, demands that you pay attention, so it's not really the sort of movie that you throw in the DVD player while you're preparing dinner or something.

Redbelt is a smart and engaging movie about a man who lives by a strict moral philosophy, and the often steep price he has to pay to maintain his integrity in a world that has none. As a fan of Mamet, MMA, samurai movies and twisty thrillers, it's right up my alley, and if any of that sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend it.

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