'Redbelt': Basically a Boxing Picture

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Sony Pictures Classics

Wait, that one dude isn't even wearing a belt at all... he's sporting suspenders.

Redbelt is like every boxing picture you ever saw: a gifted, morally principled, rather innocent fighter discovers that the real world is full of crooks and shysters. The fighter reluctantly confronts those who would sully his name and game, wins some sort of conditional victory over them. And gets the girl besides.

There is, however, one difference between writer-director David Mamet's film and other fight game tales; it is not about boxing. It is about a mixed martial arts, combat that involves elements of jiu-jitsu, kick-boxing and the many other weird ways men have devised to do great bodily harm to one another. That gives Redbelt an original edge that somewhat separates it from the boxing genre. This advantage is greatly enhanced by its protagonist, Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is excellent in the role). Mike is a black belt jiu-jitsu instructor, running a none-too-successful school in South Central Los Angeles, yet refusing to fight for the money that would lift him out of poverty. He holds to the ancient Samurai Code, which insists that competition is crass, a dishonor to the purity of the "art" that he practices. Jiu-jitsu, he insists, is not about winning and losing, it is about finding "escapes" from desperate situations, escapes that allow both participants to withdraw from combat with their honor intact. You might say that it is like a muscular and physically graceful form of chess, in which the best possible result would be a draw.

As I probably don't need to tell you, Mike has his problems trying to maintain his austere values in contemporary Los Angeles. All kinds of troubled people — a frenzied lawyer, a louche movie star, a corrupt producer and a rich variety of thugs and toughs swim through his life. On top of which his wife — who seemed pretty OK for awhile — betrays him because she has money troubles of her own. Eventually, reluctantly, he decides to fight for money, except that he discovers that the card on which he's booked is rigged. So he...

But wait a minute. Redbelt contains even more plot than that, too much of it, I think, for a film of quite modest length to carry comfortably. It feels to me a little rushed and breathless, despite the fact that it is generally well-played and is beautifully photographed in a low-key burnished light by Robert Elswit, who just won an Oscar for There Will be Blood. This cram-it-all-in manner is particularly surprising given that the film is obviously a labor of love for Mamet, who tells us in a director's statement that he has spent something like five years learning jiu-jitsu and is passionately committed to the values it represents and promotes. I also missed the hard wit of the language we associate with Mamet — funny, cynical, laced with well-chosen obscenities. It's almost as if his tongue was slowed by the seriousness with which he regards his subject.

I don't like to trap any writer — especially one as good as Mamet — in my expectations. He surely has a right to reach for a new manner whenever the spirit moves him. But the LA demi-monde he's exploring (often with his shrewd observational skills fully intact) seems to cry out for the intensity of expression that made plays like Glengarry Glen Ross and movies like The Verdict sing with a sort of atonal harshness, helping them transcend the rather confined situations he prefers. Redbelt (the title refers to the highest honor available to jiu-jitsu fighters), despite its novel milieu somehow remains trapped in genre conventions. It's still basically a boxing picture, not essentially different from dozens of other movies about life in and around what the old time sportswriters used to call "the squared circle." Mamet's circle is, alas, just a little too square.