May 12, 2008

Movie Review: Redbelt

Here is a movie that I knew very little about when I entered the theater. I knew it was a David Mamet film, which automatically gives hope for something good. I also knew that it involved MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighting. I had the impression that it was going to be a more, much more, intelligent version of Never Back Down, from earlier this year. What I did not know could probably fill a book. For example, I had no idea that Chiwetel Ejiofor was the lead, nor did I know that Tim Allen had a role, much less one that was non-comedic in nature. Both of those facts proved to be pleasant surprises.

Redbelt is an interesting film, it is not an action film despite containing MMA influences, it is not a comedy despite the presence of Allen, and it is not about plot despite the existence of one that could be accused of being overly complex. What it is about is honor and being true to oneself above all else. It is about living by a code that is larger than yourself. It is more a character study than it is about plot. For this, I thank David Mamet for daring to deliver a film with such a wonderful central character, one who refuses to bend to outside influences, sticking to his beliefs and his honor, allowing them to guide him through.

This is decidedly not your typical Hollywood drama. Redbelt does not overly concern itself with all of the plot threads and side stories. Yes, if a bit more attention had been paid in that area, the film would decidedly be better had everything tied together a little better. However, the film succeeds on the strength of the central performance. The character is compelling and will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.

At the center of the story is Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a jiu jitsu instructor who runs a dojo in a rundown area. As a teacher, Mike is skilled, well respected, and highly successful. However, as a business, he is barely breaking even. This matters not to Mike, as he is happy, but the same cannot be said for his wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), who is constantly concerned about their future without steady income.

Now, despite this not being about the plot, there is a lot of plot to cover. To cover the plot and all that is involved would be to rob you of the discoveries to be had, specifically the manner in which Mike is affected and how all around him are connected in a tragic chain of events that test Mike's resolve and will to stand by his beliefs and retain his honor.

The real attraction here is Chiwetel Ejiofor. The more I see of him, the more I am impressed. He has wonderful screen charisma, and his performance here is electric. He brings Mike Terry to vivid life, a compelling character who you want to see succeed. There are many opportunites for him to turn his back on his ideals and take the easy way to a profitable end, watching him navigate the treacherous waters is fantastic. He has many decisions to make, none of them easy and questions remain over whether or not he made the right choice. All of this builds to a conclusion that made me say "Wow!"

The supporting cast have interesting stories as well; in particular Max Martini (The Unit)as Joe Ryan, the troubled police officer who believes 100% in protecting the honor of the dojo. Another interesting secondary character is Emily Mortimer (Lars and the Real Girl) as Laura Black, the lawyer with personal issues, she plays a major factor in moving the story along. Finally, there is Tim Allen who does a fine job in limited screentime as the movie star.

David Mamet's script is strong when it comes to the Mike Terry character. There is also a lot if interesting points as the plot unfolds; it is not until afterwards when you find yourself questioning motives. Overall, the screenplay is good, but could have been better. Still, Mamet's work is at the very least worth checking out. On the other hand, his directing is rather pedestrian, nothing particularly special. It would be interesting to see his screenplay directed by someone with a more visual style.

Bottomline. This may not be Mamet's best work, and it may have some big plot issues in retrospect, but it is still an interesting film and one that is definitely worth spending a couple of hours with. If nothing else, you will find a strong performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor.



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