The Crop: Redbelt
The Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
The Writer-Director: David Mamet
The Producer: Chrisann Verges
The Actors: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Alice Braga, Emily Mortimer, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ricky Jay
The Premise: A principled martial arts instructor struggling to keep his modest dojo operational succumbs to the lure of Hollywood. The ensuing flirtation is a disaster, compelling the instructor to fight professionally for the first time in his life.
The Context: Diligent, inimitable, and rarely off the mark, David Mamet is the true "King of All Media". Since 1970, rare is the year that has passed without a new something from the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer: plays, translations of plays, books, screenplays, teleplays, whole television shows, dramatic spillage (ala Goldberg Street)… Mamet hardly lacks for inspiration, and his work never lacks for purpose. Or controversy. For decades, Mamet’s harshest critics have branded him a misogynist; it’s a charge he essentially confronted head-on in the explosive sexual harassment Rorschach Test, Oleanna (in the classic "Fuck You" Mamet tradition, he didn’t exactly help his case with this one). He’s also piggybacked on roiling controversies for our amusement and edification, which has resulted in the popularization of an obscure phrase (Wag the Dog), as well as a subtly devastating criticism of U.S. foreign policy that will hopefully gain in stature (Spartan).
But Mamet’s most indelible contribution to the arts is his stylized, staccato dialogue, which passed over into parody during the 1980s before springing back into style during the late 1990s thanks to acolytes like Paul Thomas Anderson and, not for nothing, the work of the master himself, who finally developed a visual vocabulary to match his inexhaustible literal reserves with The Spanish Prisoner and The Winslow Boy (a stirring adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s stodgy play that remains Mamet’s finest cinematic achievement to date). Though Mamet’s macho badinage might be in danger of falling back into parody now that it’s become fodder for car commercials, his 2005 satire Romance was sharper and livelier than anything he’d written for the stage in well over a decade.
Interestingly, Mamet’s profile has risen in the past year: his terse verbal aesthetic is now on display once-a-week on CBS’s The Unit, which just got picked up for the 2007-2008 season. Perhaps reacting to the surely fleeting nature of this commercial acceptance, Mamet has chosen professional mixed-martial arts combat as the subject of his next feature film, currently titled Redbelt. Upon hearing this news, Mamet enthusiasts like myself both cheered and cocked an eyebrow, wondering if the writer-director had made a concession to the marketplace. Obviously, the movie, no matter its intent, would end up sounding like Mamet; however, the plot details meted out via the trades were vague enough to leave us wondering whether this would be an exploration of the UFC’s inner-workings or a gratifyingly layered long con set against the MMA landscape. The casting of Chiwetel Ejiofor, one of the most exciting actors working today, was encouraging, and what would a Mamet movie be without Ricky Jay (or, unfortunately, Rebecca Pidgeon, though she has upgraded her onscreen persona from "grating" to "tolerable")? Still, this is easily the most un-Mamet project he’s undertaken since flirting with Spider-Man.
The Script: It’s Rocky meets The Spanish Prisoner!
Ejiofor will play Mike Terry, the owner of a dingy dojo promising to train students in "Streetfight Martial Arts, Real World Skills". Mostly, Terry trains cops, and, as we learn in the early going, he doesn’t receive much in the way of financial compensation for his troubles. But Terry isn’t in it for the money; he lives his life according to a strict code of honor, which compels him to watch after a down-on-his-luck cop named Joe Ryan even though Terry can barely keep his own business afloat (as we learn in the opening scene: an intercutting of Terry teaching his students to disarm an assailant and Terry’s wife Sondra arguing with bill collectors in an adjacent office).
The first bit of conflict is bizarre; it entails a mentally distressed attorney named Laura wandering into Terry’s dojo after a minor car accident, seizing Ryan’s service revolver and firing it before Terry can disarm her. Terry, sensing the woman is somehow salvageable underneath the crazy, prevails upon Ryan to not report the incident.
From here, we get into the guts of the story: Terry, badly in need of a sizable loan to keep the dojo open, goes to visit his benefactor, MMA champ Joao Dasilva, at the fighter’s trendy nightclub. But Terry’s primary concern is Joe Ryan, who was working security at the club and, despite Terry’s assurances, not getting paid. Terry, clearly a respected figure in the MMA community judging from the way he’s treated by the rank-and-file employees of the establishment, winds up talking with Joao’s brother, Hector, who offers a $50,000 purse in an undercard bout before Joao’s upcoming fight with the legendary Taketa Morisaki. When Hector realizes Terry is preoccupied over the Ryan matter, he rebuffs him.
While the men discuss business, a situation develops on the floor of the club: the action film star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) shows up at the club drunk and without a security detail. As expected, Frank quickly gets into it with some troublemakers who don’t appreciate the actor monopolizing the collective attention of the female clientele. A fight breaks out, but before the toughs can finish Frank off, Terry steps in and clobbers them. The following day, Terry receives a box containing an invitation to dinner at Chet’s Malibu home and a gift: a diamond-studded gold wristwatch. He accepts the invitation – but gives the watch to Ryan as penance for landing the officer a lousy job.
The dinner at Chet’s house goes exceedingly well: Terry’s authenticity fascinates Chet and his motor-mouthed producer, Jerry Roy (think all the worst qualities of Joel Silver and Scott Rudin combined), while Sondra is a hit with the wives (who want to partner with designer Sondra on a fashion venture). It’s a fantastic scene featuring a great contrast in philosophies and lifestyles. Jerry kicks it off with this breakdown of why MMA cannot overtake boxing:
"Boxing? Visually, they come together they break apart. It tells a story… screen wisdom. Screen wisdom is: don’t get that close to the other guy, lest you’re going to a) kiss him, or b) hit him. Wrestling, you’re closer than that. It’s too close…it’s like filming a "fuck" scene. Finally, what are you looking at? Where’s the, where’s the… "variety"… where is the…"anticipation?" …what makes it various…?"
A moment later, when Mike is pressed on why he trains people "to fight", he replies thusly:
"I train people to prevail. In the street. In the alley. In combat: the bodyguard, the cop, the special ops guy. One rule: put the other guy down. You have to train to do that. Any staged combat. Must have rules."
In other words, professional fighting is a violation of pure martial arts, and, therefore, is an affront. But when Terry visits the set of Chet’s latest film the following day, he opens up a little, sharing his thoughts on Jiujiitsu and, most importantly, fighting with a handicap (as determined by the sight-unseen drawing of black and white marbles from a container).
Because Terry lives by strict principles to the detriment of his business, his marriage and his various friendships, he must be punished for this transgression. Guys like Jerry and Chet and even Sondra are comfortable with compromise, but Terry is a model of virtue; when he strays, the world is knocked out of balance. How he suffers, though, can’t really be elucidated without ruining the intricacies of Mamet’s plotting. This exposes some of Redbelt’s flaws: most of the scenes concerning Laura, the mentally unstable lawyer who Terry decides to train, are jarringly out of place. As standalone scenes, they’re not bad, but they do feel wedged into the proceedings; that her legal expertise will pay off in Act Three is undoubtedly the most telegraphed element of the script.
On balance, these are minor flaws. Most of the action Mamet has set in motion over the first two acts is sensationally paid off in the finale, which takes place in and outside of the octagon. Though Mamet, as ever, goes heavy on the talking (the script is 128 pages long, but could conceivably run just over 100 minutes), he scripts some joint-snapping, eye-blackening, choke-out…-ening action that he can hopefully pull off visually (the action in Spartan wasn’t that stiff, right?). He’s been honing his action chops on The Shield and The Unit; who’s to say he isn’t ready to make like Sheldon Lettich?
Why It Should Be Good: Chiwetel Ejiofor. After a few bravura supporting turns in Inside Man, Four Brothers and Children of Men, this motherfucker is ready for stardom. He’s got everything: looks, charisma, talent, a cool scar (check out that forehead) and, when he needs it, a British accent. Just don’t expect Redbelt to launch him into the stratosphere; it’s a small movie that’ll do, at best, somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million.
Also worth noting: Alice Braga, who set film projectors on fire in City of God.
Why It Might Suck: Mamet subs out MMA for arm wrestling after a chance viewing of Over the Top. Also, is Tim Allen credible as an action star?
What I’ll Be Rambling About Next: Chris McQuarrie’s Valkyrie.