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At the Movies: Zen and the Art of Rigging Fights: Redbelt **1/2

Redbelt is almost a good film. Anchored by a brilliant, intricate performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, this film struggles under the weight of its heavy ideas. With so many “important” lines threaded throughout, and lingering close-ups that offer little in the way of insight, the film is interestingly all over the place.

With Mamet regulars like Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, and Rebecca Pidgeon, and a circular narrative that is part shaggy dog story and part morality play, there is no question who the author of Redbelt is. With a screenplay this indulgent there is no question that the writer is also the director. David Mamet has only his own reputation to live up to, and perhaps that stands in the way of his telling this story well. He gets his points across, but does so in a way that betrays the film’s potential.

Ejiofor plays a martial arts guru and jiu jitsu master who is quietly running his own training school, married to a hot, gorgeous Brazilian clothing designer (played by Alice Braga), when a confused and jittery white woman happens into his school. Her appearance sets off a chain of events that will make Mike Terry (Ejiofor) break his promise to never fight professionally. It’s a long and complicated road that gets Mike to the fighting arena, but that is the best part of the film.

This is a film about the philosophy of jiu jitsu and the subsequent corruption of the art by showbiz phonies who rig fights, cheat, and steal from people to put on entertainment where the outcome has been predetermined. That it only occurs to Mike towards the end of the movie that these televised fights are rigged seems to contradict the worldly wisdom the character exhibits earlier in the film.

The early part of the film shows Mike and his wife struggling with money, and when Mike saves Chet Frank, a wealthy actor (Tim Allen), in a bar fight, the actor decides to bring the martial artist into his world. Frank seduces Mike with promises of money and his being named producer on the actor’s latest film, but it won’t be a surprise to anyone that the Hollywood portrayed here is as corrupt as it always has been. Who can blame someone like Mamet for hating the Hollywood machine? One can only imagine the pitch meetings, the silliness. And yet, everybody has to work.

What is best about the film isn’t, strangely enough, Mamet’s dialogue. It is good, but probably better on the page than being uttered by actors. No, it’s really the actors themselves, especially Ejiofor, who brings a stoic brilliance to Mike and carries the film quite nicely. He is someone who always delivers when he’s on screen and yet, for some reason, is still one of the most under-celebrated actors of his generation.

The film sets up its audience for a fight. In that way it is no different from films like Unforgiven or even Rambo. If justice is ultimately delivered it must get there via an untraditional route. Mamet wants us to look at the truth of the thing, and we would if only it wasn’t so obvious from the outset.

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