I sounds crazy when you say it – David Mamet writes and directs a martial arts drama – but it’s a superb match of sensibility and genre. In so many ways, Redbelt is both a revival and a complete redefinition of the kind of film that Jean-Claude Van Damme cranked out in the eighties, the kind of thriller that pit fighters in matches in underground leagues and our honorable hero overcomes his disdain for such bloodsport to take revenge for the murder of a brother/friend in the ring.
Mamet, of course, latches on to the philosophical grounding of martial arts that is always given lip service in such films, and then either ignored or bent to fit the revenge plots. But he also embraces the machismo of the genre, but in his own way: the confidence of strength, the courage of modesty, and the professional grace of a fighter who uses the least amount of effort and movement to achieve his goal.
I wrote about the film for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here:
David Mamet’s stage reputation is built on his glorious dialogue, pushed far beyond any sense of realism into a verbal symphony of intertwining solos built on staccato bursts of profane words elevated to terse poetry. But when it comes to Hollywood, his most interesting films are his genre pictures — heist films, murder mysteries, con movies, all generally male-centric narratives that he reworks with his own brand of professional pride, machismo and male honor. It’s a man’s world and he revels in it.
“Redbelt” takes Mamet into territory no one otherwise would have predicted, the martial-arts thriller of honorable expert fighters, international competition and sinister organizers who corrupt the process. The sport here is Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, but Mamet hews to the samurai code, with Iraq vet and poor but proud Jiu-jitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, all quiet dignity and modesty) as his honorable warrior in a dishonorable world.
The review is a rave, and I’m very happy with it, given the limitations of of space. The cast is in fine Mamet form, taking on his dialogue and inhabiting his conflicts like they live in it. And it’s a marvelous cast, including Mamet favorite Joe Mantegna as a high-powered agent with a savage business sense, Tim Allen as a self-loathing actor in a war movie who can’t help but feel diminished in the company of true military veterans, Ricky Jay as the event promoter, and Alice Braga as Mike’s frustrated wife. Emily Mortimer is a troubled attorney who respects Mike’s sense of honor and loyalty and becomes his only ally when the businessmen attempt to intimidate him into submission.
It’s glorious pulp fiction elevated to genre art, full of Mamet’s cynicism about the corruption of big business (just substitute Hollywood for the martial-arts league) and his romantic ideals of men in military service and men dedicated to a higher purpose.
For all the physical sequences, the screenplay is pure Mamet: characters trading questions that never get answered, lines repeated like a mantra, dialogue jumping topics like the transcript of an ADD convention, but always landing back on topic A.
Mamet is more respectful than exciting as an action director, but his fascination with how things work, be it the mechanics of designing and promoting a big pay-per-view event or battling a world-class Jiu-jitsu master, makes it all quite mesmerizing.
There are, however, more ambiguous elements that I didn’t get to explore in the short format of the newspaper review.
Mike is an idealist in a corrupt society. But he is also an idealist with little concern for taking care of himself and his family, financially speaking, in a material world. His own business, a martial arts training studio where he brings up his students like they apprentices, is broke and his wife is sacrificing her own business funds to keep him from closing. You could say he’s “too pure” to be a businessman, which is supposed to be a sign of his honor. But his honor comes at a cost to the people around him, a contradiction that Mamet seems to be starting to explore until he returns to the simple poles of loyalty and betrayal in the final act. The climax almost all theatrical gesture, hardly a crime in this genre, but from Mamet I expect a little more dramatic authenticity, or at least a shadow of ambiguity.
Yet I’m won over by the film. Mamet loves to explore process and expose the way things work, and spends a lot of time elucidating the details setting up and promoting the big pay-per-view fight that will end the film, showing the promoters hatching ideas on finding a hook to give it an identity, and then create buzz to attract attention. These behind-the-scenes details are fascinating, but they also define the sensibilities of the characters involved in the enterprise, especially when Mamet reveals the sleight-of-hand twist that throws the entire bout in a whole new light. (In this case, it is a literal sleight-of-hand, which feels so right coming from an artist so fascinated by con artists and false identities, and who casts stage magician and raconteur Ricky Jay in so many films – including this one.)
There’s a disappointed realism behind the cynicism of entrepreneurs behind the big PPV martial arts smackdown, men sacrificing the honor of the sport for the money that can be generated by manipulating the drama of the fight, and a passionate idealism when it comes to military service and the soldier’s code. With Mike, a Desert Storm veteran himself, it combines with his code of honor as a Jiu-jitsu instructor and martial arts master to create a man of unbending integrity.
Read the Seattle P-I review here.
Also, read my interview with actor Chiwetel Ejiofor on GreenCine here.
Son of Rambow
I am won over by the joy and imagination of this celebration of two boys in 1980s rural Britain – sheltered Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner), a creative child in a severe religious sect, and school bad-boy Lee Carter (Will Poulter), a kid left to his own devices (none of them good) by absent parents and a tyrannical older brother – who team up to shoot a sequel to “Rambo” on home video equipment.
Perhaps the most ingeniously imaginative element in “Son of Rambow,” a film exploding with imagination (some of it scrawled directly over the film in animated expressions of Will’s private world), is its very conceit. A viewing of “First Blood” (on a bootleg video, of all things) opens the floodgates of Will’s creativity, inspiring him to turn his private stories and imagery into a fantasy rescue of an absent father: a wild war movie by way of “The Wizard of Oz.”
Writer/director Garth Jennings captures the innocent ecstasy of boys discovering the elemental power of cinema and the unfettered play of imagination with disarming humor. And he gives the boys a cartoonish invulnerability that falters only when their private world is invaded by competing egos (notably a French exchange student who becomes the local king of new wave cool).
The entire review is here.
Director Daniele Luchetti’s small-scale survey of political passion and action on both sides of the spectrum recalls the acclaimed Italian drama “Best of Youth” — no surprise as he collaborates with the film’s screenwriters, Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli. In this lively drama of rebellion and revolution, emotion is even more inflammatory than politics.
“My Brother Is an Only Child” isn’t a critique of the left but a film about the consequences and responsibility of “political action.” Luchetti measures social justice not in ideals but in positive change and the compassion with which it is accomplished.
My complete review is here.