DVD of the Week – Review of Redbelt (2008)
by HELEN GEIB
Writer-director David Mamet’s most recent film, Redbelt stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry, a jiu jitsu master whose convictions are tested when he becomes entangled with unscrupulous people who include fight promotion among their many rackets. It is a commanding performance. The film co-stars Emily Mortimer, very fine as a lawyer who becomes Terry’s student and greatest ally. The supporting cast is a mix of Mamet regulars, prominently including Joe Mantegna, and Mamet newcomers who fit right in playing members of the rogues’ gallery. Tim Allen’s turn as a fading action hero movie star is not to be missed.
One of the most interesting things about Redbelt is the way it upends the conventions of its genre. That Terry is a practitioner of jiu jitsu rather than a boxer is not a radical departure from genre norms in and of itself. Boxing movies have been made for years now that substitute karate, kickboxing, wrestling, etc. for boxing while leaving the structural conventions of the genre intact.
One of those conventions is the climactic fight in the ring. The boxing movie has many permutations: the fighter may be a veteran or an upstart, may fight for his family or himself, may win or may lose in an honorable defeat, may even on occasion be a woman. But whatever the story variant, it builds to a final bout that offers validation to the fighter and the vicarious thrill of physical combat to the audience.
Redbelt ends with a final fight that takes place in the arena corridor while someone else is fighting in the ring. Corruption, near-ubiquitous in the boxing movie, has become all-pervasive. The fights are fixed, rigged, manipulated, and spun. Terry was enrolled in the tournament, but he walked away when he realized that his antagonists owned the ring, and whatever he did within it would be meaningless.
Mamet takes things a big step further, stripping the fight not only of official sanction, but of its traditional narrative significance as well. It is here that the choice of jiu jitsu is meaningful. Jiu jitsu is not primarily a profession or an avenue of self-expression to Terry. Rather it is a philosophy that he has integrated into every aspect of his life. The important contests in the film are not the fights, but the decisions Terry makes when faced with a series of difficult moral choices.
The film’s true climax is the decision he makes right before he turns back towards the center of the arena; the final fight is merely a roadblock to its implementation. The camera resolutely enforces this meaning on the scene. The fight is distinctly not thrilling, constructed with camera angles and editing choices that assert that even at the most difficult moment of Terry’s greatest fight, what is really important is what is going on inside his mind.
Other new releases this week: Chicago 10, Made of Honor, What Happens in Vegas, Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?