Wednesday, May 21, 2008

This Ain't No Jean-Claude Van Damme Flick


Release: 05.09.2008
Rated R

1 hour, 39 minutes

Matinee ($$$)

Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dirty Pretty Things) is a jiujitsu instructor who considers himself a true warrior at heart. After his pupil Joe (Max Martini, Saving Private Ryan) attempts to earn his black belt, a jittery woman, Laura (Emily Mortimer, Match Point), enters the dojo only to shatter Terry's window with Joe's gun. Terry's wife, Sondra (Alice Braga, I Am Legend), sends him to borrow cash from her brother at his nightclub. Terry's sense of honor keeps him from asking for a loan, but it does get him to rescue actor Chet Frank (Tim Allen, Wild Hogs) from some ruffians. Terry's honorable act draws him into a world where the activities of unscrupulous men threaten to tear him apart.

After watching Redbelt, I couldn't help but be reminded of those Jean-Claude Van Damme action classics where he's a skilled fighter always at odds with his moral fiber; what should seem to be a difficult compromise of his beliefs for the protection of a greater good (i.e., a decision which can not be taken lightly) is made in the span of a few slow-motion breaths followed by a wild-eyed explosion of his triple-take split kick to the opponent's head. Remember those moments? Well, Redbelt doesn't have those.

Leave it to writer-director David Mamet (The Spanish Prisoner) to craft a movie about fighting where the major conflicts with the character occur within his psyche and not against an opponent in a ring. Ejiofor is a sea of internal conflict. Mamet captures him deep in meditation in many scenes. Terry is held by his honor to abstain from fighting for competition due to its shallowness, yet needs to pay his debts and feed his family. He's offered the opportunity to win money by competing, though only after his warrior ideals have been compromised by people he gave the benefit of his trust.

Mamet doesn't focus only on the life of Terry. Mortimer's Laura deals with an inner turmoil of her own and seeks answers in Terry's teachings. Even Tim Allen, whose role is minuscule, seems mildly intrigued by the honor code by which Terry lives. Illustrating the amoral perspective are Mamet regulars Ricky Jay (Boogie Nights), David Paymer (State and Main) and Joe Mantegna (Body of Evidence). The beautiful thing about Mamet's scripts aside from their authentic feel is that they are rich in depth of character. On the negative side, some of these characters rich in depth were thin on story. In particular, a side plot involving Sondra disappeared for what I assume was a lack of time.

Dirty Undies
You'd hope that a fight film would have more actual fighting but like I said, this ain't no JCVD film. Redbelt opens with a fairly violent training session at Terry's studio with men twisting and grappling for control of the ring. There are a few other skirmishes, but it is clear that Mamet's focus isn't for the craft of the fight but for the underlying emotions compelling the opponents; great for gripping , intellectual drama but it sucks if you've come looking for carnage.

The Money Shot
Don't let Redbelt fool you into thinking it's a fighting movie. This here's a thinking man's fight, and I admit to analyzing the story's complexity days after viewing. The ending is especially poignant. The film could have been enhanced by more visually stimulating scenes, maybe not massive violence, but the blandness does linger.

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