Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry
Emily Mortimer as Laura Black
Alice Braga as Sondra Terry
Tim Allen as Chet Frank
Joe Mantegna as Jerry Weiss
Ricky Jay as Marty Brown
Max Martini as Joe Ryan
Allison Karman as Lawyer
Rodrigo Santoro as Bruno Silva
David Paymer as Richie
Rebecca Pidgeon as Zena Frank
Jose Pablo Cantillo as Snowflake
Caroline de Souza Correa as Monica
Randy Couture as Dylan Flynn
Dan Inosanto as Joao Moro
Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini as George
Enson Inoue as Taketa Morisaki
Renato Magno as Romero
John Machado as Augusto Silva
Bob Jennings as Sammy
Cathy Cahlin Ryan as Gini Collins
Jean Jacques Machado as Himself
Directed by David Mamet
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s impeccable performance is the best thing going for Mamet’s look at the world of ultimate fighting, a film that only excels when it treads on familiar Mamet territory but ultimately suffers from the ridiculous amount of characters and a convoluted plot.
Former soldier Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has found peace as a black belt Jiu-Jitsu trainer as he tries to keep his school afloat. His unwillingness to sell out and fight professionally doesn’t go over well with his wife (Alice Braga), who’s unhappy about their lifestyle. When one of Mike’s students gets into trouble with a pretty lawyer (Emily Mortimer), it starts Mike down a path that gets him involved with actor Chet Frank (Tim Allen) and a shady fight promoter (Ricky Jay) that might force him to fight professionally in order to get out of trouble.
The thought of David Mamet setting a film within the world of martial arts and ultimate fighting is intriguing and daunting at the same time. After the horrendous “Never Back Down,” the thought of a fight movie by arguably one of America’s finest writers is something that could help make older cynics take the sport more seriously, and “Redbelt” isn’t a typical sports or fight movie as much as it is an attempt by Mamet to create a modern noir film within that environment. Whether or not this idea works, it’s a marked improvement over “Spartan” in terms of the writing and casting.
We’ve only just been introduced to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mike Terry, a former military man who uses personal philosophies while teaching Jiu-Jitsu at his school, when he gets caught up in a number of precarious situations, including an accidental shooting at his dojo involving a policeman student and a lawyer (Emily Mortimer) and a bar fight started by a washed-up actor. Before this, he’d already been having trouble to make ends meet despite his Brazilian wife (Alice Braga) wanting him to get help from her brothers, both of whom fight professionally. These various subplots will eventually come together but until then, it’s an odd mix of plotlines with disparate characters that seem to have no real connection except for Mike. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that Mike is setting himself up to get screwed with the way he naively enters many of the situations.
Mike Terry is a great role for Ejiofor as he carries the movie with a confident and convincing performance that works in whatever situation Mike enters, whether it’s a business meeting or a bar fight or training his students. He’s clearly a well-developed character with lots of backstory that comes out over the course of the movie. Unfortunately, neither of his female co-stars have particularly interesting or as developed roles to show their strengths as actors. Essentially, Braga plays Mike’s bitchy money-hungry wife ready to sell him out at the drop of a hat, while Mortimer’s lawyer is somewhat more of an enigma, filled with quirks and erratic behavior who only seems included to add sexual tension, which is never followed through with, and being there to represent Mike when he runs into trouble with the shifty characters.
As with Mamet’s previous films, the casting is just as key for the satellite characters that weave in and out of Mike’s character arc, and Mamet has brought back his regular ensemble to maintain a certain sense of familiarity. Ricky Jay has a plum role as the sleazy and racist fight promoter who pushes Mike to re-enter the ring, Joe Mantegna is equally strong as Chet Frank’s manager while Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon has an insignificant role as his wife. (Like with “Spartan,” Mamet cuts far too many corners when it comes to his female characters.) Mamet should get suitable credit for maintaining accuracy within the martial arts setting by bringing in real fighters from that world, and even boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini briefly shows up as Mike’s former military colleague, now working on a movie set.
As always, the film is driven by Mamet’s trademark rapid-fire dialogue, and while Ejiofor, Mantegna and Tim Allen easily slip into those distinct speech patterns, Brazilian actors Braga and Rodrigo Santoro and the non-actors struggle with the delivery, making their scenes feel awkward. There are plenty of scenes that work, but there are just as many others that feel shoe-horned and unnecessary to the overall story.
Sadly, it seems like Mamet has followed Woody Allen to a place where he tries to fit far too many ideas into what eventually becomes an overly-complicated and convoluted story, and as the movie gets bogged down by its abundance of characters, Mamet is left to dig himself out of the hole. Surely, there must have been an easier way to get Mike back into the ring then for him to get involved with so many different people not in his normal circle. By the time the film finally gets to the big climactic tournament, the main story hasn’t gone anywhere that wasn’t telegraphed from very early on. The whole thing ends on a ludicrous and implausible note as Mike never actually entering the ring after all that build-up, which is enough to destroy much of the good will that Mamet has created by weaving such an intricate character-driven tale.
The Bottom Line:
If you’re a Mamet fan, you might appreciate some of these characters and the ideas he’s brought into this setting–and yeah, Mamet’s dialogue is still great–but with far too many characters and way too much going on, it’s a hard to follow film that ultimately ends in a predictable and unsatisfying place.