" I’ll be monitoring your frequency "
— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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If you don’t know who David Mamet is, you should think twice before you see Redbelt. After my screening, I overheard people saying it was not what they expected from a martial arts film. But Redbelt is first and foremost a Mamet movie and only secondarily a martial arts movie.

Mamet is the screenwriter behind stagey dramas like Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo. He’s also written clockwork capers like Heist and The Spanish Prisoner. He’s known for his formal, exact, yet seemingly inarticulate dialogue, and his stories sometimes have a fatalistic tinge of Greek tragedy. He is a smart writer and director, firmly in control of conflict and words. If you don’t know him, look him up.

Hollywood offers Mike a movie credit: associate producer
Hollywood offers Mike a movie credit: associate producer

In Redbelt, Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Inside Man) plays Mike Terry, who owns a Jiu-Jitsu studio.

Though there are Japanese and Brazilian traditions in Jiu-Jitsu (Mike’s gorgeous wife is from Brazil), Mike has developed his own tradition. In formal bouts, the fighters draw lots to determine whether one of them is to be given a handicap — e.g., having a hand tied down. Mike’s point is that if you get mugged in a dark alley, there’s no telling whether you might find yourself at a disadvantage; a good fighter must know how to adapt.

One of his students is on the verge of earning a blackbelt, which indicates that the wearer can teach, that he represents the academy. Another potential student asks Mike what’s higher than a blackbelt. “Redbelt,” he says. “There’s only one of those.”

When these three characters meet in the first scene, it sets off a chain of events that ends, eventually, in Hollywood, where actor Chet Frank (Tim Allen, very good in a serious role) thinks they can use Mike on-set. When Mike grins at his wife, proudly announcing “they’re going to make me an associate producer,” fans of Mamet will know to cringe. In Mamet’s State and Main (about a film crew coming to a small town), there’s a running joke about associate producers — it’s Hollywood’s way of impressing rubes and getting them to work for free.

Redbelt is a sports movie, where lessons learned in the class prove useful in real life. It’s also a Mamet caper with clockwork twists and turns and sharp and snappy dialogue. The tone is fatalistic like a Greek tragedy, but not so hopeless. It’s all of this and more. It’s one of the best movies of 2008 so far, and it’s worth a look.