Movie Review – Redbelt (2008)


Oh, David Mamet, how I love your halting, sparse, profanity laden dialogue from a bygone age. It’s just so…well, it is what it is and indeed it is, and it’s just so f*#king nifty.

Mamet’s body of work, which began on the screen twenty years ago with the ferocious House of Games, is the embodiment of Picasso’s sentiment that art is the lie which reveals the truth. Redbelt, like so many of Mamet’s films, is filled with deceit and treachery, both from the characters and the filmmaker, but by willingly and happily allowing ourselves to be manipulated, we emerge with a little better understanding of the world than when we entered the theater. Plus, we get to see Tim Allen as a narcissistic and vaguely evil movie star. It’s a winning combination.

Redbelt is an instantly familiar entry in the Mamet collection, giving us an uncompromising protagonist who must step lightly through various twists and turns of plot and character and does so less with guile and skill than with an unyielding sense of righteousness. Think of Val Kilmer in Spartan, Campbell Scott in The Spanish Prisoner and Gene Hackman in Heist. All suffer stoically from problems stemming from their own intractable nature and our fascination with them is the shared knowledge that their lives would be improved immeasurably if they would only bend the tiniest fraction of an inch.

In this mold arises Mike Terry, played beautifully by Chiwetel Ejiofor, an ardent practitioner of an arcane form of Jiu Jitsu, the type of which seems to have been studied from books you might have mail ordered thirty years ago. Much of the joy of Mamet is unraveling the plot, but it is giving away little to mention that Terry’s business is flagging and financial pressures drive most of the choices the characters make. Ejiofor was superb in Dirty Pretty Things, bringing dignity and reserve to his role as a Nigerian immigrant suffering in seedy London, and his approach in Redbelt is similarly pitch perfect. The ability to convey supreme physicality in sequences that often contain little action is a challenge that Ejiofor rises to throughout the film.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, highlighted by Emily Mortimer’s convincing turn as Laura Black, a troubled attorney. Mortimer provides perhaps my favorite scene in the film, in which she is embarrassed by an outburst of tears; Ejiofor calms her with the knowledge that she need not hold back, for there are only fighters there to bear witness. It’s a great line of dialogue, and a prescient one as we find in the final turning point of the film. It is with such craft and skill that Mamet guides (manipulates) the viewer, giving us characters that unfold in languid fashion, surprising themselves as much as us.

The finale is a curiosity, a combat sequence with little visceral thrill and an initially under whelming final shot. Mamet has written that his style of directing has little or nothing to do with visual aesthetics and everything to do with the truth of the moment, the overall point of the scene, and certainly we should expect nothing less from a playwright. Much of the final fight is seen in the distance, the crowd in attendance a disembodied entity that frames the contest less in terms of size or spectacle but ultimately to create a sense of isolation. There is no prize for Terry, no joy in battle. He stands alone, his faith and code of conduct all that simultaneously protects and damns him from a shattered life of his own creation.

3 1/2 stars


Review of Redbelt by Helen Geib

3 responses to “Movie Review – Redbelt (2008)

  1. A fine film and one that repays close attention. I look forward to a second viewing. Ejiofor’s performance is really excellent in a challenging role. The supporting players deliver the Mametian dialogue with aplomb.

    The climactic fight, waged in a corridor of the arena instead of in the ring and decidedly non-thrilling in the way it is presented, is a particularly interesting scene. It is emblematic of the way Mamet has rewritten the traditional narrative of the boxing movie. Corruption in the “sport” is all-pervasive; victory or defeat inside the ring would be equally meaningless. Jiu Jitsu to Mike Terry is a code of conduct and guide to life, such that the importance of the physical contest lies in its expression of intellectual and moral choices.

  2. I can only wish good writing was more widely appreciated. This one flashed through the theaters so quickly I never had a chance to see it and I’ll have to wait for the DVD. I’m still catching up with some of Mamet’s earlier work that way since his fan base is as small as it is devoted. Two of my favorites are ‘State and Main’ and ‘The Winslow Boy’, which are interesting variations on your theme of uncompromising protagonists. He does bend more than a little in the first and is the happier for it; in the second he bends not a fraction and triumphs, though not without great cost and the help of others.

  3. Did anyone notice the Ed O’Neill out of frame cameo? He himself a blackbelt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Mamet regular. Also another viewer I saw it with found it ironic that for man known for his dialog, there is none for the last ten minutes of the film. It’s a really good movie that is in my early top ten for ’08.


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