Monday, September 01, 2008


After watching David Mamet's Redbelt (recently out on DVD), I asked myself, "Why isn't everything at least this good?" Redbelt is a small, twisty movie about a seasoned, dogmatic Jiu-Jitsu instructor who exhibits a purity of spirit and grounded optimism (some may say naiveté) in the face of an intricate and often ludicrous plot sprung on him by opportunistic lowlifes. Like the small intestines, the film bends in on itself and turns so many corners, that it's able to compact a surprising amount into its limited space (in this case, 110 minutes). Better still is the fact that, up until the final moments, the film moves through this structure like a shark; every moment moves the plot or the characters forward. Its momentum is such that any nagging questions about the plausibility of the narrative or the fact that people are engaging in some pretty complicated deceptions to accomplish things that would probably be easier handled with a good old-fashioned exchange of large amounts of currency are left behind.

What happens in Red Belt is tidily explained by Ricky Jay near the end of the film, a summation of all the trickery and deceit employed to the disadvantage of the noble Jiu-Jitsu instructor. It's a relief to the instructor when he does, but also to the viewer. Mamet's script is marvelous in the way it rations out the pieces to the film's central puzzle to the audience and the protagonist at once. Having a character whisk away the subterfuge to reveal the machinations of the plot can feel arbitrary or lazy, but here it's simply a confirmation of everything you (and the instructor) have suspected all along. The pieces are in hand, you've got them fitting together just fine, and all this revelation does is confirm the picture on the box. It doesn't hurt that it's swiftly done.

The film is anchored on Chewitel Ejiofor's performance, and he serves with great distinction. The noble and pure artisan is a cliche of the highest order, particularly when dealing with martial arts fellows. Ejiofor avoids the traps of making his character either self-righteous or a martyr. When he can't scrape up the money to pay for his studio's broken window, he exhibits both regret that his ideals will not allow him to earn a quick buck by fighting professionally and the enticement that such an easy path holds for him. Like Mamet's script, the performance is a carefully controlled drip. When he shouts at someone at the film's climax, it's both a surprise and a delight to see this otherwise gentle, selfless man explode into such a commanding fury.

In negotiating the con-artist plot Redbelt stacks up one small success after another, but it bungles the finale. The movie's smart enough to know that the real fight does not happen in the ring, and I was delighted that the final fight was motivated by ideals and philosophy, not brute aggression or something as trite as revenge. The writing is just as sharp here as any other moment in the film, but the filmmaking turns a shade too mawkish. When the sentiment starts roaring in, it's a bit too much and too soon.

It's a disappointment to see the movie falter so, as it's otherwise a solid little movie. The whole endeavor has the vibe of a great B-movie from the past. One of the things that makes these films valuable, even now, is an efficiency in their storytelling--absent time and money, they couldn't afford to focus on anything but their subject matter. Redbelt is similar. It provides an honest look at a small corner of the world and tests its main character's ideology in a taut, efficient framework. It's no surprise given Mamet's pedigree that it's the writing that distinguishes this movie from similar, but less successful fare, and it is also writing, I believe, that is the answer to the question I posed at the film's conclusion.

Would be a good double feature with: The Set-Up link:

1 comment:

movie links said...

What great review you have shared. I like to read first about a movie before watching it. And I felt that this movie is a pure time pass movie.