David Mamet’s Redbelt is a film about the pure and spiritual side of the martial arts style of Brazilian Jujitsu. A redbelt is a martial arts’ belt “that can’t be obtained through normal rank progression. It is reserved and signifies the rank of great grand master.” Redbelt stars and follows Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he instructs his students about both sides of Jujitsu, the side concerned with prevailing in a confrontation and the side that honors the art form itself. This could mean anything from showing your teacher the proper respect to acknowledging that you have more to offer and learn than just fighting skills. Terry could be an affluent prize fighter if he wanted; he is a blackbelt in Jujitsu after all but believes competitions are deeming to the art. Terry believes that Jujitsu is about something more than a refereed match between two opponents. Terry’s ardent belief in the spiritual and pure side of Jujitsu spurs similar beliefs in others, especially his students. Belief breeds honor and a desire not to dishonor their teacher or his academy, Southside Jujitsu. In Redbelt, this strong belief leads to tragedy, the same as it might in an Akira Kurosawa film.
Make no mistake, this is not a flashy martial arts flick choreographed by one of the Pang Brothers (John Machado did the choreography and has a part in the film as well). Yes, there are fights involving martial arts but they are far more realistic than you normally see on film, which are simultaneously their strength and their weakness. The viewer has to adjust to their realistic, lackluster nature. By intervening on behalf of movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen), Terry is thrust into an almost alien, amoral world where a person of his trusting nature is chewed up and spit out. Once that excretion happens, Terry turns to the aid of Laura Black (Emily Mortimer), an attorney. Black is indebted to Terry for showing her the truth of one of his teachings: that there is no situation in which you can not escape from. There is always an escape.
Fans of David Mamet know his theatrical background and that his movies have their own unique style of dialog. Redbelt is no different and yet it seems more commercialized and accessible than some of his previous efforts, such as Spartan. Mamet dialog is up front and center at the beginning of Redbelt (“Improve the position.”) but seems to retreat during the second and third acts of the film. Mamet fans my find this disappointing since the dialog to his films are always the most attractive feature of his films. Consequently, since the dialog isn’t the center piece in Redbelt, the viewer by default concentrates on the other aspects of the film, such as its plot and action sequences.
David Mamet’s Red Belt is a drama set in the world of martial arts and prize fighting. Most directors would have crafted a film heavy on martial arts fight scenes and light on drama. Mamet is not like other directors and took the latter route.