If you rent the 2008 David Mamet film “Redbelt” you might be left wondering why this fascinating film from one of America’s finest writers and directors remains a virtually unknown quantity.
The quirky, hard-to-define story made it a hellish marketing challenge in theaters four years ago and the video quicky fell through the cracks, too.
The movie is a mix of standard Mamet hard-bitten world weariness mixed in with an attempt to bring a genuine American hero to the screen.
Set in the world of people who find a complete life philosophy in their interest in martial arts, “Redbelt” follows a Gulf War veteran named Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who runs a Jiu-jitsu academy in Los Angeles.
Mike and his wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), live one small step ahead of their bill collectors, but Mike has a devoted group of students who look to him for spiritual guidance as well as physical training.
Mike tells his students that his immersion in martial arts as a sport and a way of life has taught him, “There is no situation that you cannot escape from. No situation that you can’t turn to your advantage.”
The movie becomes a test of Mike’s philosophy — and his decision not to compete in professional Mixed Martial Arts matches — as he gets sucked into the lies and corruption of a group of Hollywood insiders.
In a bar fight, the teacher rescues a Hollywood action star Chet Frank (Tim Allen). The actor gives Mike an expensive gift and then offers him work as an adviser (and producer) on one of his blockbuster movies.
Before he knows it, Mike’s life is turned upside down, he’s lost almost everything that is important to him, and seemingly has no way out other than competing in a garish TV martial arts competition.
“Redbelt” is tough to describe because it keeps shifting tone and adding oddball new characters all along the way — this is the opposite of formula moviemaking.
The performances are all wonderful, but Mamet was truly fortunate to get the brilliant Ejiofor to play Mike. It isn’t easy putting a man of almost pure goodness at the center of a movie — and keeping him interesting — but Ejiofor allows Mamet’s vision to remain strong and focused from start to finish.
The British actor doesn’t appear to have any casting limitations — he was completely believable as the wild drag queen in “Kinky Boots” and the tough anti-hero of “Dirty Pretty Things.”
“Redbelt” is drawn from the writer-director’s experiences as a student of Jiu-jitsu master Renato Magno and some of his famous colleagues, of whom Mamet has written, “They, in their demeanor, their generosity, and their understanding of the world, offered to me, and their other students, a vision of the possibility of correct, moral behavior in all circumstances.”
That Mamet can blend this scrupulously moral philosophy with a portrait of modern Hollywood at its most repellant is just another example of the artist’s wide-ranging gifts.