“Redbelt” is the kind of movie that in description doesn’t sound nearly as good as it really is. To say it is about jiujitsu teaching and fighting places the film into a box in which it doesn’t fit. This isn’t “The Karate Kid” or “Rocky.” But to elaborate much further would ruin the pleasures of a film that does something few films do: offer genuinely surprising moments that grow from the story and characters rather than a cheap gimmick.
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Mike Terry, the owner of a jiujitsu training business that is barely staying afloat. Mike doesn’t believe in competitive fighting, and, despite a dire need for money, avoids them out of principle. Chance encounters with an action star (Tim Allen playing against type and giving a solid dramatic performance) and a high strung lawyer (Emily Mortimer, “Match Point”) set off a series of events that force Mike to go against his beliefs and enter the ring in a fight for money.
That makes the film sound rather ordinary, but that is just the film boiled down to its barest plot points. The film isn’t about physical conflicts, but Mike’s conflict with the world around him. Mike is a firm believer of honor and is quick to trust others in a world that is corrupt and cruel. His attempts to do the right thing sometime backfire when others twist his actions for their own behalf.
The film is layered and complex with a web of characters, including Joe Mantegna as a film producer, Ricky Jay as a fight promoter, Alice Braga (“I Am Legend”) as Mike’s wife and Max Martini as a cop Mike trains. But complex doesn’t mean confusing. It is a film that is rich with dialogue and character, which isn’t surprising coming from writer/director David Mamet, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who has written such films as “The Untouchables,” “Wag the Dog” and “Ronin.”
Mamet has a way with dialogue that could be termed hyper-realistic. You know those moments where you think of a really smart response to a conversation you had earlier in the day? A Mamet script is written as if all those things we wish we had said in the moment actually got said. The dialogue is sharp, and intelligent, but never pretentious.
“Redbelt” covers the familiar territory of the code of the warrior and the etiquette of fighting, but there is freshness to how it is presented and freshness in the delivery by lead Ejiofor. Ejiofor, one of the best actors working today, is often in supporting roles in films such as “Children of Men,” “Inside Man” and “American Gangster.” He is the sort of actor who often gets referred to as “that guy.”
Ejiofor could be a household name, and probably would be if his name were easier to pronounce. He has a screen presence that is instantly commanding, and his work is nuanced and effective. He’s a performer so natural it never seems like he is acting.
The film is slow-paced, and those expecting a non-stop fight film will be let down. Mamet takes the time to create a well-rounded central character and to surround him with interesting supporting players, but he rewards the patient viewer. By the time there is a final confrontation, it matters. There are things at stake, and the film pays off in completely satisfying and unexpected ways.