Wed April 30, 2008
More than Jiu-Jitsu
By John DeSando, WCBE's It's Movie Time
"Never stop fighting 'til the fight is done." Mamet's Untouchables.
From Jackie Chan gymnastics to Crouching Tiger fantasy and all martial arts in between, if you are watching to witness bloody realism, then go to snuff movies because most mainstream filmmakers wish you to see the metaphor in the mayhem rather than the shock in the schlock. David Mamet's Redbelt is more than a Jiu-Jitsu competition for the highest belt; in the best tradition of complicated fight films, this competition is for the principled soul of academy owner/instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the fight representing a challenge to his long-standing Samurai principle that "a competition is not a fight."
Mamet's love affair with crisp crude language (See Spartan and Glengarry Glen Ross for starters) is in this film still a staccato rhythm mixed with minimal dialogue emphasizing the great issues such as authenticity and honesty rather than expletives. Mike is unwittingly thrown into the maelstrom of a con, which he should be able to evade according to his mantra that there is always an escape.
The academy needs cash; Terry is maneuvered by slick operatives to fight for $50, 000, contrary to his belief in the authenticity of a real fight and the sham of competition. What happens next is minor for the outcome but major for seeing the corruption of those around the fighter. It's all a house of cards, to pick the title of one of Mamet's challenging films. The playwright, director is constantly facing his heroes with con games that threaten their sense of right in an essentially chaotic universe.
Redbelt may be one of Mamet's less dense films, but it still reflects a filmmaker dedicated to unearthing the ambiguity through the metaphors of gritty, violent daily life, in which principle will not always defeat betrayal. I am thankful this film is neither the fantasy of so many Asian martial arts films these days, nor is it the inane romance of Never Back Down. "It is what it is," as today's tough guys might say, and that's a violent concept just right in the age of Iraq and presidential politics.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE 90.5's It's Movie Time, which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm and on demand anytime. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com