Thursday, September 5, 2013

Three Things About: Redbelt

In the interest of trying to boil my writing down into something more manageable, I'm trying out a new series, "Three Things About..." where I'll limit my commentary to three bullet-pointable items. For the inaugural attempt, I'm taking on David Mamet's Redbelt. Here's the trailer--the good trailer, which doesn't feature major spoilers:

1) The Inspiration: Redbelt is the story of Mike Terry  (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Jiu Jitsu instructor in LA whose school is struggling financially, and who is pressured to fight professionally to make ends meet. Writer/director David Mamet was inspired by his own experiences with Jiu Jitsu, a martial art to which actor Ed O'Neill introduced him. And so we have the delicious image of black belt Al Bundy:

A devotion to martial arts goes a long way to explaining O'Neill's talent for physical comedy; but now I'm bewildered at why Married...With Children didn't feature more scenes of O'Neill tossing around David Faustino like a sack of potatoes. Probably an insurance issue. Sadly, O'Neill only gets a cameo role in Redbelt, and it's not a cameo in which he's arm-barring Randy Couture into submission.

2) The Story: The film is a jumble of Mamet's themes and trademarks that don't quite fit together. Fans of Mamet are used to tales of honor and deception with labyrinthine plots (see House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, Heist, Spartan). Usually, however, the deception is the center of the story, and Mamet's protagonists--even the honorable ones--are or become deceivers themselves.

In Redbelt, (I'm trying to avoid spoilers here) an extremely complicated multi-level deception is launched for the sole story purpose of landing Terry in a MMA tournament, and the motivations behind the deception are fairly contrived.  Most of it is off to the side of the focus of the story--which is showing how Terry's devotion to the martial arts shapes his life and the lives of those around him--and parts of it carry a whiff of Mamet trying to pad out the film's 99-minute running time.

Don't take this the wrong way: Redbelt gets a recommendation from me, because even a middling Mamet film is still interesting, and because there are some really nice performances (Ejiofor, Alice Braga as his wife, and particularly Emily Mortimer as an attorney). However, its plot overkill sometimes resembles Karate Kid Part III, in which a wealthy businessman inexplicably becomes involved in a grudge between a suburban Los Angeles Karate instructor and a 28-year-old college freshman, and decides to use his considerable resources to break the boy's spirit…and recapture the All-Valley Karate Tournament title!

Thomas Ian Griffith, who plays a wealthy businessman and Viet Nam vet, is actually
several months younger than Ralph Macchio, "kid" one year out of high school.

3) The Villain with Two Backs: (SPOILERS ABOUND--skip this one if you don't want to be spoiled) Mamet makes a strange decision to split the piece's main villain in two halves, the Silva brothers, who are Terry's brothers-in-law. One brother, Bruno,  is the obvious bad guy for much of the film's running time, but with maybe 15-20 minutes before end credits, the other brother, Ricardo, shows up to have the climactic fight with Terry.

I can understand why Mamet did it this way: Ricardo's played by John Machado, a bonafide Brazilian Jiu Jitsu master, and that fact doubtless adds realism to the final fight. However, Machado's not much of an actor (his accent's thick enough you can barely understand his lines), so Rodrigo Santoro as Bruno has to carry the acting part of the film's villainy, while Machado handles the "choking a brother out" part.

While I understand the choice, I don't think it works. When Terry and Ricardo face off, it's supposed to be a deeply personal battle for the soul of their martial art. Instead, it's our hero fighting a guy we just met and know relatively little about. We know these guys had the same teacher and are related by marriage, but we have no other idea of their relationship. Were they friends? Rivals for their teacher's affection? The only thing we know about Ricardo is that he's badass enough to be a big deal in MMA, and that's enough to make him a physical threat to Terry.

It's a great fight--one that's spoiled by one of the film's trailers, referenced above--but it wanted for emotional content. That means that Mamet probably should've hired an actor for the role, and sacrificed a little realism in exchange for some backstory between Terry and Ricardo. In the alternative he could've kept things the way they were, hiding Ricardo until the end of the story, but then he would've had to use Terry to build up Ricardo as a character, to make us as surprised as he is when Ricardo turns villain in the final reel.


  • You ever get the feeling when you're watching a movie that a particular scene is the reason that the film was made? There's a powerful teaching scene between Mortimer and Ejiofor in Redbelt that gave me that feeling, and virtually justifies the movie's existence, all by itself. I would've broken this scene down as one of my points, but I couldn't find any video of it online, and I found a nice writeup by Alex Withrow that anyone who doesn't mind some spoilers should go read.
  • Am I the only one who gets a little disoriented by the varying levels of Mametese employed by characters in Mamet's later films? In Mamet's early films it seemed like every actor was a member of his repertory, dedicated to giving his dialogue all the pauses, intonations, and cadences the master requires. Scenes in later films feature some characters speaking naturalistically (or relatively so) in the same room as old Mametese masters like Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna, and Rebecca Pidgeon. A world in which everyone speaks like Mamet characters makes some sort of sense. A world in which some people speak like Mamet characters, others try with wildly varying levels of success, and some don't seem to make any effort whatsoever, is dissonant. It's not as distracting as the various accents in the Leo DiCaprio remake of The Man in the Iron Mask, but still.
  • Surprisingly good Mametese performance: Alice Braga. Her accent makes the pauses and emphases sound natural without blunting them. Surprisingly bad Mametese performance: Cathy Cahlin Ryan, who was good as Vic Mackey's wife on The Shield, doesn't do great work in what Thaddeus would call the "Give him some money!" role, as an aggrieved cop's wife (typecast much?).

1 comment:

  1. Excellent job, DJ! I really like the way you wrote this entry up in the face of the spoilers issue.

    Mamet films tend to evoke complicated feelings. I was glad that reviews of this were so positive, since Ejiofor really is a fine actor and deserves all the attention he could ever get. I, however, have yet to see this movie - but you've given me plenty of inspiration to do so soon.

    Man, that picture of O'Neill is just perfect! And such a cool thing to learn about an actor that I've always really liked. I'm super-glad that he and Katey have had such strong careers on TV these days; they also deserve all the attention that they can get...


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