With sly, increasingly expectation-defying films, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet has spent the last decade layering popular entertainments with subversive ideas about social politics. Mamet has particular interests in the role the relatively youthful, upstart American culture inhabits alongside (and more often than not antagonistic to) ancient global cultures, and human nature as indistinguishable from animal nature. At first blush, Mamet's new film Redbelt might seem to take on an unlikely subject matter in martial arts competition, but as usual, the writer-director's gaze penetrates well below the surface.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (Talk to Me) plays Mike Terry, proprietor of the Southside Jiu-Jitsu Academy. He's a man of honor, who trains police and civilians alike in self-defense, and refuses—at least at first—to use his knowledge for extra-curricular personal gain. "Competition," he insists, "is weakening." Much to the chagrin of his wife (Alice Braga), Mike is too "pure" to be sensible about money matters, meaning that the academy has respect and honor but also a serious problem paying the bills.
An accident in the school one night sets into motion a series of events that seem both to threaten careers and potentially make them. Terry's money problems intensify, but he also stumbles into a seductive, moneyed Hollywood circle that includes an action star (Tim Allen) and a slick producer (Mamet regular Joe Mantegna). Despite the efforts of a lawyer (Emily Mortimer) who owes Terry one, circumstances conspire to push him into a competition, where he definitively becomes a pawn in somebody else's game.
As usual, Mamet tells an engrossing story that can be enjoyed on its own surface-level merits, particularly Robert Elswit's sleek urban photography, dizzying plot developments, and tough, well-done dialogue. But the story also serves as an allegory of what's wrong with our country, in terms of priorities and international relations. Greedy promoters matter-of-factly exploit a martial art form developed in Japan and Brazil. By way of excuse, one played by Ricky Jay spits, "Read the street signs. We're in America." And in America, incorruptible men who fight for centered reasons (duty, a sense of justice, self-defense, personal development) are easy prey for amoral money-grubbers looking to increase their status and holdings on the backs of men putting their bodies on the line.
It's no stretch of the imagination, then, to see Mike Terry's good-natured gullibility as that of our honorable soldiers in Iraq, who have unwittingly paved the way for cash grabs by contractors colluding with politicians (uncoincidentally, Terry is a veteran talked into consulting on a Hollywood war film). Certainly, the film needn't be seen in this light: it functions strongly as a drama of a man too moral to know what's "good" for him in a world that one character describes as "turning into a dungeon." In the end, Redbelt is another ripping yarn, with its climactic fight playing out in an unexpected way that nevertheless satisfies Terry's primary lesson: "There is no situation that you can't escape from."
Sony's Blu-Ray of Redbelt (mirrored on DVD) has everything one could want from a special edition of this film. I can find no fault with the clean Blu-ray transfer—possessed of accurate color, depth, and detail—and the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix likewise leaves nothing to be desired as it puts you into the midst of the fights.
The bonus features begin with an always essential David Mamet commentary, this time shared with Randy Couture. Though the two are perhaps not evenly matched in terms of intellect (after all, who can match David Mamet? Not many...), Couture chats it up just fine as Mamet demonstrates his magpie's memory for quotations, anecdotes and facts. Obviously, the pair focus on MMA and the fight scenes, though each also banters with the other about his area of primary expertise: ultimate fighting or filmmaking.
The next best thing to a Mamet commentary is "Q&A with David Mamet" (26:20), an extensive onstage chat from April 21, 2008 that finds Mamet in a reasonably playful mood. Among the topics covered are the movie industry, aspect ratios, casting, the idea of "good" in films, and how Redbelt is in some ways a "hero myth," a fight film (noir), and a samurai film. Good stuff.
The nicely done making-of "Redbelt: Behind the Scenes" (19:09) covers Mamet and his story, production design, costumes, the cast, Mamet's direction, directing non-actors, fight scenes, and "the Mamet set" with interview subjects Mamet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alice Braga, Emily Mortimer, David Paymer, Tim Allen, producer Chrisann Verges, Ray Mancini, Vincent Guastaferro, Joe Mantegna, production designer David Wasco, set decorator Sandy Wasco, costume designer Debra McGuire, Ricky Jay, Rebecca Pidgeon, fight choreographer/producer Renato Magno, and stunt coordinator Jack Gill.
"Redbelt: Inside Mixed Martial Arts" (18:52) focuses on jiu jitsu, MMA, the fighters and the fight scenes. Interviewed are Mamet, UFC President Dana White, Enson Inoue, Ejiofor, Magno, Rodrigo Santoro, John Machado, Randy Couture, Dan Inosanto, Mancini, Mike Goldberg, Scott Ferall, Jose Pablo Cantillo, and Gill. "An Interview with Dana White" (16:53) allows the UFC president to detail the history of UFC and where MMA is heading, while "Fighter Profiles" (4:11) flips through dossiers (illustrated with clips) of Magno, Machado, Inosanto, Couture, Mancini, Inoue, and Rico Chiapparelli.
"The Magic of Cyril Takayama" (4:35) finds the actor-magician telling his own story and that of his character, as well as showing off his slight-of-hand wizardry (Ricky Jay also comments). The "Theatrical Trailer" is included, as is a link to Sony's BD Live feature of additional online content. Mamet fans: no tapping out. Pick this one up with confidence.
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