Movies You’ve Got To See: Redbelt
Directed by: David Mamet
Produced by: Chrisann Verges
Chiwetel Ejiofor: Mike Terry
Emily Mortimer: Laura Black
Tim Allen: Chet Frank
Fight Sequences Choreographed and Produced by: Renato Magno
First off, let me stop and say this so we are absolutely clear. Despite all appearances to the contrary, this is not a martial arts film. Once again, despite the splendid fight sequences, however short, and the plot that is derived entirely from a martial arts theme and a story based off of the world of Mixed Martial Arts, this is not a martial arts film. But this is a good thing. In fact, this film absolutely thrives from it.
When I say this is not a martial arts film, I mean that this is not your typical action and fight flick, not your typical Jet Li-is-looking-for-revenge film or Jackie Chan-is-fighting-against-impossible-odds-with-nothing-but-humor-and-improvisation-alone film (although I love those movies too: I grew up watching him). No, this is a martial arts drama, a movie that succeeds in telling an in-depth story that happens to feature martial arts as a theme. And it is good.
The story is about a man named Mike Terry, played so efficiently by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Efficiency is a key word, especially when describing Mike Terry: he is a teacher of a struggling brazilian jiu-jitsu school in California who teaches his students not only the physical elements of the martial arts, but the mental, emotional, and spiritual tenets of the art as well. He is a man of honor–so much that when a frightened woman (played by Emily Mortimer) accidentally discharges an officer/student’s gun, Terry glosses over the situation, worried about the consequences she would face with the law over the broken window of his already bill-laden school, much to his wife’s dismay.
From there the film rockets off–we see Terry face many trials as good things come his way and then leave just as soon, putting him in deeper situations that eventually force him to confront others who practice the art, others who do so for money and without the tenets or honor. And this is where the heart of the movie shines. Terry lives in a world devoid of honor, trying to uphold that way of life but repeatedly being told–and proven–that honor means nothing anymore.
In fact, this core of this plot really touches upon a problem martial artists have about living in a world based so heavily on money–gone are the times when a student’s resolve and faithfulness to his teacher and his school were most important. A world Terry cherishes. Now are the times when a teacher much consider how much a student can provide financially more so than spiritually.
Terry’s wife chastizes him for not keeping a focus on money. her younger brother, a professiona MMA coordinator, reinforces that belief but being a successful if not heartless man. Her other brother is a successful and famous brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter, and despite what the disclaimer at the end of the movie says, he and the fictitious ‘Silva’ family of this movie seem to resemble the very commercialized and famous ‘Gracie’ family of UFC fame.
All around him his life crumbles. His bills increases, problems arise, and even when a silver lining comes along in the character of Chet Frank (played by Tim Allen), things get even rougher, still. Terry, a man of an older, more internal way of life, is continually betrayed by those around him, and for a man who teaches awareness to the dangers in life, he is often caught off guard, not by fists or feet or gunfire, but by the impurity of man. Yet, from the beginning, all the way until the very end, and with his problems far from resolved, Terry remains the only virtuous and pure person in this world of selfishness, greed, and vice.
The plot is extraordinary. Mamet, both the director and writer of this movie, clearly has his heart set on the art. The movie never strays from it’s core, never switches gears to please the casual, easily dazzled crowd. Don’t misunderstand–this movie is not difficult to comprehend or follow–but Mamet never chooses to forgo his powerful narrative for flashy fight scenes or mindless brutality. Each word, each fight, each close up or cut are chosen for a reason, and lends itself well to the overall plot of the movie. Everything fits, everything works, everything flows.
The acting is top notch. The casting for this movie was well chosen. Ejifor, as always, delivers an excellent performance, and is great as Terry. You believe him when he says his occasional words of wisdom, you believe that he believes in them as his character does. He never breaks character, you never once believe he is anyone else besides a man stuck in the wrong time, suffering pain on different levels, physical and emotional. Emily Mortimer plays well as Laura Black, the frightened woman, who comes to look to Terry for guidance and strength that creates a realistical bond between the two as the movie progresses.
Allen as Chet Frank is good, if anything to see Allen really acting in a mature role that sees him as a broken, flawed man.
The others, too, deserve a mention because everyone was superb in this flick. Alice Braga, as Terry’s wife, Sondra, played well as a realistic woman who could not fathom the depths of a warrior’s mind or code of honor, her mind set more on the more palpable world around her based on money and bills and success. Similarly, John Machado and Rodrigo Santoro, who play her brothers Ricardo and Bruno Silva, seem true in their views that money is more important and even more pragmatically true in this world of green.
Finally, Ricky Jay as Marty Brown and Joe Mantegna as Jerry Weiss represent the face of professional martial arts producers, though not necessarily as black and white villains, but as gray slates of opportunity seekers who lie outside of moral extremes due to an amoral need to survive in a business where morality doesn’t exist. Throw in cameos with the likes of MMA great Randy ‘the Nature’ Couture and even the legendary Dan Inosanto, and this movie feels truly well rounded.
The cinematography is great here. Shots are very well done, angles wisely chosen, shots rendered beautifully. Fight scenes, done by Renato Magno, are both enjoyable to watch, but not the least bit to watch and not at all untrue to their origins. You watch fights based on real world fighting, fights based on jiu-jitsu, and when you watch Ejiofor take on opponents or teach his art, his words and his fists are truly in sync to his philosophy. While fights are generally short in most of this movie, the confrontations are again believable and included only to lend itself to the narrative.
The music is also well done, lending itself to the pace of the movie, and building in moments of tension and adversity. When Terry is dealing with sorrow and grief, or remorse, you empathize with his pain, you feel it, partly due to Ejiofor’s acting, partly due to the soundtrack and its hold over you. When a fight is going on and the climax is reaching, drums beat harder and faster, calling out to the primal part inside of us and building higher until the fight is finished.
All in all, this is a dramatic movie, which will please both the character-driven narrative moviegoers and the fans of well crafted fight flicks. While its release was not widespread, it deserves to be seen, by renting or buying. This well-made blending of heartfelt life woes, an emphasis on sticking to one’s values, and great fight choreography that stays true to art, and you have a cocktail of dramatic flair that should only influence future movies of its kind in positive ways.
Plot: Easy to follow, but very deep and mature. Continuity is never broken, no holes exist. The plot is real, and as it pits more troubles against Mike Terry, you continue to root for Terry and hope for his victory against them. Each character is included for a reason. No character is superfluous, no character is forgotton or misued, no line is added without a purpose.
5 out of 5
Performance: Each actor plays a believable role, and performs wonderfully. Characters you’re meant to root for or boo are clearly evident from the beginning, but generally still three dimensional enough to feel true to the real world.
4.5 out of 5
Cinematography and Editing: Scenes are shot well, transitions made cleanly. Nothing feels rushed, everything follows the right pace and stays consistent throughout.
5 out 5
Music: Music is done exceptionally well, kept simple and somber for most slow scenes and fast paced through drums for fight scenes. Not much will probably stick in your mind past the credits of the movie, but within it does its job well of emphasizing the emotionals of the scene.
4 out of 5
Specialty Category: Fight Choreography:
Fights are well crafted, albeit generally brief. But this is good: each fight is an extension of the drama or of Terry’s character, emphasizing his beliefs, his way of life, or a point he or the movie is trying to make about life, about honor, or about martial arts. Life is a struggle, but, as Terry repeats to his students, there is always a way out.
4.5 out of 5
Overall score: 4.6 out of 5
“A man distracted is a man defeated”.
“There is no situation you cannot escape from. There’s always an escape”.
“Don’t get tired. Let the other guy get tired.”
“Control your emotions.”
“I train to prevail.”
“I have one rule: put the other guy down.”
“Everything has a force: embrace it or deflect it, why oppose it.”
“It’s alright. There’s no one here but the fighters.”
“Everything in life: the money’s in the rematch.”