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REDBELT

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Alice Braga, Randy Couture, Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna, Emily Mortimer, David Paymer, Rebecca Pidgeon, Rodrigo Santoro
Director: David Mamet
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Sony
Features: See Review
Length: 99 Minutes
Release Date: August 26, 2008

“There is no situation you could not escape from. You know the escape.”

Film ***1/2

At first, the idea of David Mamet making a film about the world of mixed martial arts might seem more than unusual. At the same time, when you stop to think about how many genres Mamet has dabbled in during his lengthy career as both a filmmaker and a celebrated playwright, that idea seems quite the opposite. And sure enough, Redbelt is another terrific case of a film genre getting a true makeover by way of that pure, one-of-a-kind Mamet style.

This is essentially a samurai warrior tale translated to contemporary times. Throughout the film, you can sense inspirations from Kurosawa. Mamet has taken that inspiration and crossed it with the world he knows best, which is an environment inhabited by an assortment of characters who aren’t what they seem.

The warrior in this story is martial arts instructor Mike Terry, played marvelously by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Mike runs a dojo in Hollywood, along with wife Sondra (Alice Braga), where he teaches the combat form of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He is a true man of honor, an incorruptible soul who teaches his students to not simply learn self-defense, but abide but a strict code of honor associated with the philosophy of The Professor, who fathered the art form. Most importantly, he will never exploit his talents in the professional ring, as part of staying true to the code of honor.

I know the whole thing of honor associated with martial arts isn’t exactly new. At some point in any martial arts movie, you will hear a line or two about how much honor is important in fighting. In Redbelt, that entire theme is explored in the deepest fashion I’ve ever seen. You walk away understanding the meaning of it all.

Describing the meat of the plot is impossible without spoiling a great deal of information, since every single action effects what happens in each progressing scene. And with this film, that notion won’t occur to you until the final moments. It’s one of Mamet’s unique traits in writing.

Mike ends up saving the life of a movie star, Chet Frank (Tim Allen), during an altercation in a bar. Impressed by Mike’s fighting technique, Chet wants to repay him with a business proposition that will turn things around for Mike. Since his business is in a bit of a financial bind, Mike accepts the Hollywood star’s offer.

And from that point, the endless web of deception begins to unravel slowly. Once Mike finds himself amongst the movers and shakers of Hollywood, who are also linked to shady promoters behind an upcoming televised fighting tournament, his code and ethics are put to the ultimate test. I, for one, was really stunned by how far the deception ran, but then again you can’t trust very many people in a Mamet morality tale.

For Chiwetel Ejiofor, this is a riveting star-making performance and should elevate this terrific actor to leading man status. Ejiofor has shined in countless films, most notably in Children of Men, Serenity and Four Brothers, but Redbelt marks his most triumphant work to date. Not only is it a fantastic performance, but also the role itself is without question one of the most unique heroic characters I’ve seen in any recent film.

I should also mentioned that I was downright shocked to see Tim Allen appear in a film of good quality, which he hasn’t appeared in since Galaxy Quest or Big Trouble. And it’s a nice change of pace role for him. He is not here for comic relief at all, and it’s refreshing to see him expand his range for once.

The rest of the cast is most phenomenal. I haven’t even mentioned the stunning Emily Mortimer, who plays a pivotal role as a lawyer who becomes Mike’s latest student, and for good reason. We also get memorable pop ups from Mamet regulars like Joe Mantegna and Ricky Jay, as well as an intense but brief performance from Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, who actually played Xerxes in 300.

Redbelt is riveting as both a modern day warrior tale and a morality play. It also illustrates that David Mamet is still on top of his game as a filmmaker. You always get something unique when watching his films, and this is indeed no exception.

Video ****

Sony delivers one marvelous looking presentation with this release. This is one of Mamet’s most stylish productions to date, and the anamorphic picture provided takes full advantage of that, with striking results. The level of detail throughout the movie is spectacular, as are the colors and all around sharpness of the picture itself. The result is the finest looking presentation of any Mamet film to grace the format yet.

Audio ***1/2

With a David Mamet film, dialogue is first and foremost, so not really expecting much from the 5.1 mix in terms of dynamic sound, I was incredibly surprised by what I got. There’s a consistent level of surround sound use in even the smallest set pieces, and the final forty minutes of the film, set in a crowded arena for a fighting tournament, is the biggest strongpoint of the presentation. Dialogue delivery is clear and strong, as expected.

Features ***1/2

Sony does this release right with a fine amount of extras. There’s a commentary with David Mamet and co-star Randy Couture, who’s also a real life UFC fighter. We also get a good number of in-depth featurettes, including “Behind-the-Scenes of Redbelt”, “Inside Mixed Martial Arts”, “Q&A with David Mamet”, An Interview with Dana White”, “Fighter Profiles” and “The Magic of Cyril Takayama”. Lastly, there’s a Theatrical Trailer and Bonus Previews for additional Sony releases.

Summary:

A modern day samurai warrior tale told by David Mamet. What more could you want? Redbelt goes far beyond the expectations of the martial arts film and delivers something truly unique, as only Mamet could do. An underrated gem and true must see!

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