The premiere of Redbelt took place on April 7 in Los Angeles. Since then, the film – which reportedly cost US$7 million – has grossed just over $2 million. One wonders: Where the is audience for David Mamet’s latest achievement?
Redbelt is a much tighter film than Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner (1997) and more relevant to our times than the film version of Edmond (2005). As a plus, the actors in Redbelt can handle Mamet’s particular flair for dialogue much better than the actors of his previous films. So again, where is the audience for this film?
Redbelt is a tough film to market, that’s a given. Its audience may be limited to mixed martial arts (MMA) fans and to the more cerebral theatre connoisseurs – who are likely instead to be found in the audience for Mamet’s new stage comedy November. So, how did Sony Pictures Classics handle the film’s marketing? They split their concerns between Spike TV and New York’s Lincoln Center. With the growing interest in MMA and growing pockets of upper-class theatre types, Redbelt should have been a guaranteed financial success – but, despite glowing reviews, it wasn’t. Perhaps neither demographic was willing to compromise their tastes, which turned out to be their loss.
Redbelt follows jiu-jitsu teacher and academy owner Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who, above anything else, upholds his morals. The film opens with Terry giving his advanced students a lesson involving a handicapped fight. There are three marbles, two white and one black. Each fighter picks a marble from their teacher. If they select white, it’s a pass. If they select black, it’s a handicap determined by spinning an arrow attached to a cardboard picture of a human body. The arrow’s final position determines the fighter’s handicap (blindfold, one arm tied, both arms, etc…).
Terry is quick to point out, “Think he has a handicap? No. The other guy has a handicap if he cannot control himself.” Terry is filled with these philosophical statements of encouragement, constantly shouting phrases such as “You know the escape, you know the escape” or “Improve the position,” and so on. (Mamet himself has been training in jiu-jitsu for five years, and believes that his teachers offered him and other students “a vision of the possibility of correct, moral behavior in all circumstances.”) Thus, David Mamet’s Mike Terry is the modernized MMA version of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard. Like Poor Richard, Terry relies on his aphorisms and proverbs to get him through financial despair.
The plot revolves around both Terry’s work at the academy and the economic difficulties that put a strain on his marriage. At one point, Terry must ask for a loan from his brother-in-law Bruno Silva (Rodrigo Santoro), a bar owner in the fight promotion business. Bruno suggests that if Terry wants money he should fight on the undercard – easy money, a quarter of a million dollars. But Terry believes in the Samurai code: “competition is weakening.” He turns down the offer. While at the bar, he saves action film star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) from a bar fight, a gesture that leads to generous gifts and a job offer in the film business as producer on Frank’s new project. Finally, it seems that fortune’s wheel is coming around for Terry.
What then plays out, however, is a morality tale in which pride, greed, and sacrifice all have a role. After accepting the Hollywood job offer, Terry’s positive demeanor quickly changes as a series of misfortunes affect him and those around him.
Redbelt appears to be Mamet’s presentation of the moral character that he has been aiming (or training) for in his jiu-jitsu lessons. The film focuses on the individual and independent spirit of the true hero: one with a rock-solid moral fiber that is tested, and who is compassionate and honorable while struggling to make the right decisions. Overall, Redbelt is more positive than many of Mamet’s other “man struggling against man” efforts.
The film relies on a tight script with only a few tiny oversights (unlike other Mamet films that have large plot holes or too quickly tied-up endings). The dialogue is superb, as always, and this time around the actors – all suited for their roles – deliver each stutter and colloquial verse with ease.
Mamet alumnus Ricky Jay is great, while Chiwetel Ejiofor, who reportedly trained 12 hours a day for the fight scenes, gives one of the strongest performances of his career. This fight film even looks beautiful – and why shouldn’t it? After all, Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular director of photography Robert Elswit (who won an Oscar for There Will Be Blood) rejoined the Mamet team for Redbelt. (Elswit had previously worked on Heist.) The fights scenes – though not too many – are intense and realistic, with a fantastic final sequence that made me believe that Ejiofor did train as often as reported.
As mentioned earlier, there are some inconsistencies in the screenplay, particularly in regard to the female characters and some of the male supporting players, but I’d like to give David Mamet some credit – after all he has been writing for a little while and is responsible for Glengarry Glenn Ross. Perhaps, moments were left out of the final cut due to time constraints. The momentum of the film’s tightly edited 99 minutes would have been destroyed if more explanatory scenes had been added. (Even the topic of the “Redbelt” is completely on the sidelines, like an absent character with much at stake in the story.)
In sum, Redbelt is a fantastic addition to Mamet’s canon. It shows growth and maturity in both his writing and directing style, especially in his ability to handle actors. The film may seem a bit too neat sometimes, but most morality tales do follow this approach.
So, perhaps the film offers too much to think about for the MMA audience and too much blood and choreographed fighting for the cerebral crowd – or maybe it was simply a case of poor marketing. But whatever the reason for the rough box office, David Mamet will not be hurting for work.
It is fortunate that Mamet is similar to John Cassavetes in the way that he can work within Hollywood, writing “manufactured” films such as The Untouchables and Hannibal, while being able to produce his own close-to-heart projects such as American Buffalo and Redbelt. His next picture, Joan of Bark: The Dog That Saved France, will be released by Columbia and is set to star Will Ferrell. The film is said to be a pop-culture satire, one that will probably make considerable more money than Redbelt (or any other Mamet’s picture). Therefore, funding for future Mamet projects seems assured.
© Keith Waterfield
Redbelt (2008). Dir. / Scr.: David Mamet. Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Emily Mortimer, Tim Allen, Alice Braga, Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna, Rodrigo Santoro, David Paymer, Rebecca Pidgeon, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Max Martini.