Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Emily Mortimer, Alice Braga
Written and Directed by David Mamet
Mike Terry’s every action is determined by a personal code of honor. He (Chiwetel Ejiofor) practices his personal beliefs in an unexpected place, a Brazilian jujitsu studio in a seedy section of Los Angeles.
His clients are muscle-bound, thick-necked men who are as devoted to his codes of decency as Terry. Terry’s philosophy is laid down in the opening minutes of Redbelt in which he talks a solemn, decent cop Joe (Max Martini) through a fight, throwing him motivational lines like “improve the position,” “there’s always an escape,” “control your emotions,” and “you know the escape.”
There appears to be no pickle Terry can’t figure his way out of. But what is true in the fight ring does not appear to be true outside that realm. Terry is a babe in a woods when he leaves his studio into the viper pit of contemporary L.A. where only scum bags appear to profit.
When Redbelt opens, Terry’s high moral road and financial shortfall are beginning to take their toll: His beautiful Brazilian wife Sondra (Alice Braga) clearly resents underwriting her husband’s jujitsu studio with her own clothing design company.
It doesn’t take too long for this film written and directed by playwright David Mamet to establish its moral hierarchy: The absence of money is synonymous with goodness. And the presence of money means corruption. The moment money enters Terry’s life, his undoing begins.
Mamet has constructed Redbelt like a series of falling dominoes: One nudge triggers a chain reaction. When a drug-addicted lawyer Laura (Emily Mortimer) charges into the dojo one rainy night, a gun is discharged and a cover-up is set in motion. That random, seemingly minor event turns out to have disastrous consequences for everyone in the room.
For Terry, it’s like a portal from his world of honor into a more compromised Los Angeles filled with creeps of various stripe, from film producers to lawyers to a Brazilian crime impresario who also happens to be Terry’s brother-in-law.
In another stroke of fate or bad luck, Terry is in his brother-in-law’s bar one night when he steps between a Hollywood star Chet Frank (a wonderfully unctuous Tim Allen) and the barroom thug who wants to turn him into hamburger. When Chet takes Terry under his wing in thanks, promising him a producer credit on his film, the allure of money begins its work.
Business is sordid in Mamet’s misanthropic worldview. Terry can only prove himself above the fray in the place where his morality is assured: the jujitsu ring.
Though a fascinating screen presence, Ejiofor as Terry has an almost Christlike decency that makes one wonder how he ever lasted as long as he has in the City of Angels. Terry is both captivatingly decent and too good to be true.
Mamet has always been fascinated by groups of men with a shared avocation and esoteric code of behavior, whether the salesmen of Glengarry Glen Ross or the grifters of Heist. Redbelt is obsessed, like so many Mamet tracts, with the soul-corroding power of money. But Redbelt is a new wrinkle on the usual Mamet scheme, a brainy action film which nevertheless often moves dangerously into Karate Kid and Van Damme territory with its sacred belief in Eastern fight ethics. The film often gives the impression of Mamet wistfully trying to convey the strange rituals of jujitsu masters and mixed martial arts.
What doesn’t disappoint is Redbelt‘s satisfying retro flavor, a sense of pervasive corruption that immediately conjures up classic films noir, those post-WWII stories of regular guys suddenly trapped in a quicksand of worldly malfeasance.
Terry is a man who lives by a code in a town where there are none. Nearly everyone is on the take, an idea emphasized in murky cinematography that suggests life seen from inside a scotch bottle.
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