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At the moment, mixed martial arts is the fastest growing sport in North America. So far, Hollywood has not been able to cash in yet on this increasingly popular sport. There have been a few attempts but nothing that has caught on yet with MMA’s core audience of young males. Now comes a movie from a most unlikely source: Pulitzer-Prize winner David Mamet.
According to press materials for Redbelt, David Mamet is a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jutsu and has been studying the martial art for the last five years and change. He was introduced to Brazilian jiu-jutsu through current black belt Ed O’Neill (of Married with Children fame). Yes. Al Bundy can kick your ass.
Redbelt is Mamet’s attempt to delve into the classic genre film and turn it on its head with typical Mamet verve and what you get is something quite unexpected. With this movie, Mamet tries to combine the mechanics and language of the con typical to most of his movies with the format and conventions of a boxing film filtered through the Eastern philosophies of samurai film. Sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? So is the movie.
The usual twists and elaborate cons that one would expect from a Mamet film are here as well as a handful of above average fights, but the movie lacks drama. It lacks tension. And while the movie has many good moments, it also has many dull moments. The main reason for this is because the central drive of the main character is to not fight. To not do something is not nearly as dramatic as doing something.
Another problem the movie has comes from the elaborate con that Mamet creates for the story. A good con works by exploiting a natural weakness in its mark, usually greed. The con artist gives you his confidence and sucks you into the narrative they weave so that they can exploit your weakness. In this movie, the mark’s only flaw is that he holds onto principles that are outdated and anachronistic in modern American society. The main character Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) eventually succumbs to the con and reluctantly agrees to fight only after he has exhausted all other options. This is not a satisfying con.
In the press kit, Mamet points out that this is “not a martial arts movie” and he’s right. It’s more a movie about idealism and pragmatism and whether or not the philosophies of the martial arts are relevant and applicable in today’s modern society. The end result is that the audience ends up watching a noble movie as opposed to a entertaining and dramatic one.
Full disclosure here. The Moose is both Asian and an accomplished martial artist. The reason I bring this up is that this background gives me a unique perspective on Redbelt and why it turned out the way it did. I believe that Mr. Mamet has fallen in love with the idealized purity of martial arts and its esoteric philosophy. While Mr. Mamet is not quite to the extreme of the wide eyed rice king who embraces and loves all things Asian without question, his enthusiasm and love for his art (Brazilian jujutsu) has clearly dulled his artistic edge and vision.
How else can you explain how he has forgotten his own principles about drama? His adherence to the purity of martial arts philosophy has tainted the purity of his drama. Still, despite its flaws, Redbelt is a fascinating movie in its attempts to blend so many diverse elements into a genre film. The Moose is a huge Mamet fan so I’m a little disappointed because Redbelt is not Mamet at his best. Still, it’s worth seeing because even when it fails, it’s still better than the exploitative drivel of movies of similar movies trying to cash in on the MMA craze like Never Back Down. And for those wondering about the fight scenes, the fights are better than the standard Hollywood fare. They’re staged with technical precision with an eye towards reality although the actual choreography is neither cinematic nor realistic (there are too many reversals during the grappling). If you’re really looking for a good MMA fight on film, watch Sha Po Lang (Kill Zone in America) with Sammo Hung.Buy the Moose a cup of coffee.