- Redbelt (2008) movie review: Set in the world of mixed martial arts, David Mamet’s commercially unsuccessful morality tale is possibly his most impressive to date. Chiwetel Ejiofor leads the capable cast.
Redbelt movie review: Why did David Mamet’s most profound & most well-acted movie turn out to be a total box office flop?
The premiere of David Mamet’s Redbelt took place on April 7 in Los Angeles. Since then, the film – which reportedly cost $7 million – has grossed around $2.3 million in the domestic market.
And yet Redbelt is a much tighter effort than the more commercially successful The Spanish Prisoner (1997), while it features a cast – led by Chiwetel Ejiofor – that can handle the screenwriter-director’s particular flair for dialogue much more capably than the actors in his previous films.
One wonders: Why wasn’t there an audience for this latest David Mamet achievement?
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 to be found instead in the audience for Mamet’s new stage comedy November.
So, how did Sony Pictures Classics handle the movie’s marketing? They split their concerns between Spike TV and New York’s Lincoln Center.
With the growing interest in MMA and the growing pockets of upper-class theatre types, Redbelt should have been a guaranteed financial success. Yet, despite a number of positive reviews, it wasn’t.
Perhaps neither demographic was willing to compromise their tastes. And that’s their loss.
Redbelt follows economically strapped Brazilian jiu-jitsu academy owner and teacher Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who, above anything else, upholds his morals.
It’s no coincidence that Mamet himself has been training in jiu-jitsu for five years, and believes that his teachers offer him and other students “a vision of the possibility of correct, moral behavior in all circumstances.”
In fact, Redbelt appears to be the filmmaker’s presentation of the moral character that he has been aiming (or training) for in his jiu-jitsu lessons: The independent spirit of the true hero; one with a rock-solid moral fiber that is continually tested, but who remains compassionate and honorable while struggling to make the right decisions.
That approach makes Redbelt feel more “positive” than many of Mamet’s other “man struggling against man” efforts.
Quality work all around
Unlike other David Mamet films that have large plot holes or too quickly tied-up endings, Redbelt is bolstered by a concise script whose only flaws are a few tiny oversights – possibly because the momentum of this tightly edited drama would have been destroyed with the addition of more explanatory scenes.
Besides, 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.
The fighting itself – there isn’t too much of it – is realistically intense, with a fantastic final sequence that made me believe that Ejiofor did indeed train as often as reported.
As a plus, this fight movie 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 and who had previously worked on Mamet’s Heist – rejoined the team for Redbelt.
In sum, Redbelt is a first-rate addition to David Mamet’s canon. It shows growth and maturity in his writing and directing style, especially in his ability to handle actors. Admittedly, things may seem a bit too neat at times, but most morality tales are like that.
And perhaps the movie offers too much to think about for the MMA audience and too much blood and choreographed fighting for the cerebral crowd. But whatever the reason for the rough box office of his latest big-screen endeavor, Mamet will not be hurting for work.
It’s fortunate that in a sense his career has been similar to that of John Cassavetes: Mamet can work within Hollywood, writing “manufactured” films like The Untouchables and Hannibal, while being able to produce his own close-to-heart projects like American Buffalo and the must-see Redbelt.
Direction & Screenplay: 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. Jake Johnson. Jennifer Grey. Ed O’Neill. Josh Rafferty. Randy Couture.
“Redbelt Movie: David Mamet’s Exemplary Box Office Dud” review text © Keith Waterfield; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Redbelt (2008) Movie Review” endnotes
Emily Mortimer and Chiwetel Ejiofor Redbelt movie image: Sony Pictures Classics.
“Redbelt Movie: David Mamet’s Exemplary Box Office Dud” last updated in October 2021.