I have to admit, the first trailer I saw for 'Redbelt' left me puzzled to say the least. David Mamet, the playwright and filmmaker famed for his intellectually challenging plots and convoluted dialogue in such works as 'Glengarry Glenn Ross' and 'Wag the Dog', made a movie about Ultimate Fighting of all things… and Tim Allen's in it? Come again? That can't be for real. It's got to be some sort of parody, right? But, no, it's entirely real, and it turns out to be a rather good movie too. Little did I know that Mamet has been studying Jiu-Jitsu for a few years and takes the sport known as Mixed Martial Arts very seriously. The film is much in keeping with his past efforts, a tale of conflicted men struggling to define themselves. And Allen, whose role is actually only a small part of the film, plays nicely against type, just as Steve Martin did in Mamet's thriller 'The Spanish Prisoner'.
Chiwetel Ejiofor ('Serenity', 'Children of Men') plays Mike Terry, a respected Jiu-Jitsu instructor whose martial arts studio has been failing to make ends meet. Mike could earn a lot of money by competing in a flashy MMA tournament, but is much too honorable and high-minded for that. He believes that competition spoils the purity of the art. His wife Sondra (Alice Braga) is meanwhile growing frustrated by his inflexible ideals. A chance encounter finds Mike rescuing drunken movie star Chet Frank (Allen) from a bar fight. Although Mike doesn't seek recognition, Chet is eager to reward him. A conversation about the instructor's innovative training techniques leads Chet to offer him a job as producer on his latest movie project, which could benefit from having its action scenes spiced up a little. Normally level-headed, Mike allows himself to be seduced by the Hollywood scene. Sondra is likewise enamored with Chet's wife, who wants to become a partner in her clothing design business. The couple believes that their financial problems will soon be over.
Naturally, things don't quite work out as planned. Not only do the Hollywood douchebags fail to live up to their promises, they steal Mike's training ideas and drive him further into debt, leaving him no choice but to fight in that MMA tournament he was avoiding. Even there, things aren't exactly what they seem. Now this honorable man must make a decision. Does he abide by his strict moral code, or compromise his values to protect his family?
Like most of Mamet's films, 'Redbelt' is a man's movie -- by, for, and about men. It's a story set in a world of men where the women are mainly peripheral characters or obstacles to their progress. The author has frequently been labeled a sexist. I can't really disagree with the charge, but I don't know that I entirely agree with it either. I think he simply writes about the things he knows well, and he understands the workings of a man's mind much better than he does a woman's. In any case, 'Redbelt' examines the themes that recur throughout Mamet's works: What defines a man? What use is morality? How do people communicate when their words cannot be trusted? The script bristles with his trademark Mamet-ian dialogue, the characters continually talking in circles without saying anything, or speaking volumes without a single word. He's a writer fascinated by society's hidden codes and languages, and the martial arts subculture gives him plenty to unearth here.
Refreshingly, the movie doesn't follow the typical sports genre structure in which the hero loses big, makes a grueling comeback, and then puts it all on the line for the One Big Game. Mamet likens it more to a samurai picture than a sports movie. Ejiofor once again proves himself to be one of the greatest underappreciated actors of our day. His performance is intense, soulful, heroic, and defeated all at once. He deserves to be a much bigger star. Backing him up are Emily Mortimer as a jittery lawyer with emotional problems, and a host of familiar Mamet players like Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna, and Max Martini (from his TV series 'The Unit'). In order to better capture the authenticity of the MMA setting, a number of real Ultimate Fighting Championship stars fill in supporting roles, and most of them are surprisingly effective.
'Redbelt' isn't a masterpiece like 'Glengarry Glenn Ross', but it is a smart, tightly focused character drama. It has a great cast, an intriguing setting, and a compelling story. That makes for recommended viewing in my book.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Redbelt' comes to Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. As usual for the studio, the disc opens with an annoying promo and trailers before the main menu. It also comes packaged in cover art that kind of gives away the ending of the movie.
Photographed by recent Oscar winner Robert Elswit ('There Will Be Blood') in a "scope" 2.40:1 aspect ratio, 'Redbelt' has very slick and contrasty cinematography. The Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer has nice film-like textures and a strong sense of depth. Mild film grain is present but appropriate. Colors are vibrant without looking cartoonish. Black levels are solid, though shadow detail is sometimes lacking. The picture is just a slight bit soft, but has plenty of detail, especially noticeable in the legibility of small text. This is a fine-looking disc.
The lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is just plain terrific. It's crisp, clear, and expansive, with strikingly rich musical fidelity. The score features a lot of throbbing bass, as do the fight scenes. When the fighters punch each other, you can feel it in your gut. Surround usage is subtle, but becomes very aggressive during the championship match, always in an organic and natural way that never feels gimmicky. The movie has a great sound mix, and the Blu-ray's presentation is essentially flawless.
All of the bonus features from the comparable DVD edition made their way to Blu-ray as well.
Also included are some random previews for other unrelated Sony titles.
A little movie that didn't get much of a promotional push during its brief theatrical run, 'Redbelt' is a fascinating martial arts drama with a lot to admire. The Blu-ray has strong picture and sound, and a selection of decent bonus features. Recommended.