WEEK 19: "R"


Nominees:  Ragtime, Rebecca, Redbelt, Rififi, Rosewood

Winner:  Redbelt (though post-deadline voting leaned to Rosewood;  I smell a chance for extra credit)

Background:  Writer-director David Mamet, if anything, is a student of the art of performance.  Much like Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich, Mamet enjoys emulating old film styles with his eclectic work.  In Redbelt from 2008, he takes a stab at the samurai genre of Akira Kurosawa.  With no modern samurais in this world, he tackles to world and coiled discipline of mixed martial arts.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, 2012, American Gangster) stars as Mike Terry, a Los Angeles area Brazilian Jiu-jitsu trainer who's cut from a far different cloth than his peers and contemporaries.  A former military man, Terry is, unabashedly, a man with a strict moral code of ethics and honor.  He's a trained fighter, but has never taken his talent to competition.  He's a giver, not a go-getter and runs a small Jiu-jitsu training studio/academy with a few loyal students that range from cops to day-to-day people learning self-defense.  As a man not driven by wealth or achievement, he has a tough time paying the bills, and so does his wife Sondra (Alice Braga of I Am Legend, Predators, and City of God) and her fledgling fashion business.

On a rainy night, a frazzled local attorney Laura Black (Emily Mortimer, currently on HBO's The Newsroom) accidentally sideswipes a car outside of Mike's studio and goes on to accidentally shoot out the window with a police officer's gun.  Not having the money for repairs, Mike is encouraged to approach Sondra's two brothers, MMA champion Ricardo (actual fighter John  Machado) and loan shark Bruno (Rodrigo Santoro of 300) at their nightclub for a loan.  While there, he uses his talents to break up a bar fight that involved aging Hollywood action star Chet Frank (a left-field role for Tim Allen).

Impressed by his display and help, Frank and his "people" attempt to befriend Mike and offer him a technical consultant and co-producer credit on his latest war movie.  Briefly seduced by the money and attention, Mike only gets himself into more trouble and more debt.  Unfortunately, it's the kind of trouble that only money can cure and Mike's most marketable talent is what he can do in the ring.

Reaction:  4 STARS-- Under-appreciated from the start, Redbelt was blink-and-miss-it box office entry in 2008.  MMA wasn't quite as big then as it is now and the film was probably too slow and character-driven for the stereotypical amped-up, Affliction-shirted, and Red Bull-chugging MMA crowd.  You know what, they can have the MTV-esque Never Back Down.  I'll take Redbelt.  It's a solid involving story with a perfect ensemble cast and the usual pedigree associated with David Mamet's involvement in a film.  I see more samurai than noir to this film's edge and style, but the elements are there for both.

Chiwetel Ejiofor has a presence fit for this kind of role.  He's excellent and approachable as the man of ethics, but still a waiting threat when pushed to action.  I think other actors in the role would have dialed up too much intensity and not enough heart and discipline.  He's more than a suitable samurai for this Kurosawa-like project.  The closest comparison I can offer is Forrest Whitaker in Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai from 1999 (another good buried treasure fit for the Alphabet Movie Club) as a similar gentle cobra.  Ejiofor carries the movie admirably without being a cheesy Rocky-esque underdog.

Ejiofor may be the lead, but David Mamet knows how to cast every layer of a production.  Regular Mamet players Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna, and Rebecca Pidgeon (who's also his wife) have sumptuous supporting roles.  Dialogue is snappy and every scene has a point to make for the scene that follows.  Few filmmakers nail the minimalism of "sticking to the story" like Mamet does here.  If you've never seen it, give Redbelt  a try.  Even if you don't know your way around MMA, come watch some good principles and ethics at work.

THE ENDLESS LESSON: EVERY SINGLE THING MIKE TERRY SAYS-- I could probably build and include a few counter-lessons to what I'm about to list, but the real gold of this movie's potential to inspire and educate comes from the main character.  Through the voice and actions of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mike Terry's dialogue, mantras, and quotes from this movie are innumerable.  Play the movie and hang on his every word.  Each and every one of them speak to personal control, situational control, honor, and ethics.   Let's rattle a few off.  Listen closely.

  • "There is always an escape."
  • "A man distracted is a man defeated."
  • "There is no situation that you could not escape from. There is no situation that you could not turn to your advantage.". 
  • "You let him use his strength, and you use your understanding."
  • "Competition is weakening."
  • "Any staged contest must have rules."
  • "No, I train people to prevail."
  • "Leave the outside outside."
  • "Respect your teacher"
  • "The white belt is someone who walks in off the street. Black belt is someone that the teacher recognizes as fit to instruct. In between we have blue, purple, and brown."
  • "The belt is just symbolic. The belt, as Snowflake says, is to just keep your pants up."
  • "Put the other guy down""Who imposes the terms of the battle will impose the terms of the peace"
  • "The other guy has a handicap if he cannot control himself. You control yourself, you control him."
  • "Conquer your fear and you'll conquer your opponent."
  • and finally... "The best weapon in the world is a flashlight. So you can look deep into the other guy's eyes."