He is the last noble man in a world of compromise, corruption, and con artists. His hero is an ancient gentleman simply called the Professor. He runs a martial arts school in a strip mall, but talks in hushed tones about “the honor of the academy.” He is the best, but refuses to compete, because competitions require compromise. His frustrated wife pays the bills. Soon, you have to think, he’s going to be wandering from town to town, fighting injustice, righting wrongs, and making people say, as he strides into the sunset, “who was that beautiful stranger?”
It’s true. The main character in David Mamet’s “Redbelt” reads like a comic book hero. What’s amazing, though, is that it doesn’t play like that at all. At all. Part of this because that character is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a deeply internal character who brings some real gravity and authenticity back to clichéd terms like honor and integrity. And part of it’s because, well, this is a David Mamet film, after all. He’s as famous for his plays (Tony nominations for Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow) as he is for his movies (Spartan, House of Games, State and Main.) Happy endings, even climactic ones, are not guaranteed in the world of David Mamet. In fact, they’re rather uncommon.
For this reason, my wife stopped watching “Redbelt” with me about halfway through. Bad things kept happening to Ejiofor, and there was no indication things were ever going to get any better. A jittery lawyer accidentally shoots out his front window. An unbalanced student of the Academy seems destined for trouble. A movie star (played, startlingly well, by Tim Allen) gives Ejiofor an expensive watch, which turns out to be stolen. And then some other, more important things get stolen. And Ejiofor remains stoic, honorable, taking the hits and refusing to hit back. It felt like a tragic essay on nobility in an age of compromise, a film destined to end, well, tragically. Not the kind of thing she sticks around for.
Then, in the third act, “Redbelt” remembers that it’s a movie about a guy who can really kick the crap out of people. Things take a definite “Karate Kid” sort of turn; Ejiofor gets backed into a corner and decides to compete, after all. I was astonished to realize that, even though from the very beginning this had been a film about martial arts, and had even included some nifty martial arts sequences, it had never, even for a moment, felt like a martial arts film. Bad things happen to Jean-Claude Van Damme or Jet Li, and you get excited, because you know that eventually, the gloves will come off. But I really never expected Ejiofor to turn badass. I thought he’d limp into the sunset, having lost everything valuable to him except his honor, and we’d be left considering whether his sacrifice was worth it, in the end. This is a David Mamet film, after all.
So “Redbelt” manages to be both an introspective look at honor in the modern age, and a pretty darn entertaining martial arts film. The ending feels a little hasty; a few things happen in succession that make you wonder where people got the information they seem to possess. But if it’s not quite intellectually up to the mustard, emotionally it hits on all cylinders. In a lot of ways “Redbelt” achieves what scads of martial arts moves have failed; it gets us to take it seriously, and then delivers a roundabout kick straight to the head anyway. I, for one, was floored.
- if you’d ever wished you could combine arthouse and roundhouse.
- If you’ve ever tried to run a small business, only to see others run it into the ground.
- If you’re a student of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
- If you think movies about martial arts are shallow and dumb.
- If you’re curious to see Tim Allen NOT try to be funny.
- If you think, when it comes to martial arts films, the rule of thumb should be “more fighting, less talking.”
- If you think martial arts, codes of honor, etc, are shallow and dumb.
Redbelt released on DVD August 26.
Also released on DVD this week: Then She Found Me