Mixed-martial-arts instructor Mike Terry (Ejiofor) has money problems. He could earn $50,000 in a competition, but honour precludes him from fighting for money. Then a series of chance encounters leaves him no choice. Can he win with integrity intact?
Movie fans have long pondered the question: what if David Mamet remade The Karate Kid? Well, Redbelt is as close as the master wordsmith is ever going to get, which is to say that it’s not so much wax on, wax off as it is wax lyrical. For, as one might expect from Mamet, even in a movie about fighting, much of the combat is of the verbal kind.
For a while now, Mamet’s cinematic output has been less about provocation - as his theatrical outings so often are - and more about the art of deception, and about the pleasure to be derived from placing a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles in front of a dogged and determined character. Redbelt is no exception.
At its centre is that dogged and determined individual, Mike Terry (Ejiofor), a soldier-turned-martial arts instructor for whom honour is everything. Around him swirls an array of shady characters, from Tim Allen’s jaded movie star, whom Mike protects in a bar fight, to Mamet lucky charm Ricky Jay as an unscrupulous fight promoter (is there any other kind?) whose interactions seem entirely random. Yet, as with the likes of Spartan and The Spanish Prisoner, nothing is as it seems and these disparate strands will come together to leave Terry teetering on the brink of a fate worse than death: moral compromise. But as he seems fond of reminding us with Uncle Ben-esque regularity, there is always an escape.
Redbelt - a reference to the highest honour attainable in mixed martial arts - shares thematic ground with the sorely underrated Spartan (in fact, it also shares an ending which relies on a conveniently placed camera crew): both are examinations and celebrations of men out of time, whose codes don’t mesh with the harsh realities of the modern world. This film, though, is a little heavier on the philosophy of the noble fighter, though Mamet’s great skill is in burying this in a slew of subplots and story strands, so that it never seems like pretension or preaching.
Standing out in a cracking cast, Ejiofor is electric as a man being slowly driven to breaking point - and when that point comes, it’s enthralling and moving, proving that, even for David Mamet, actions can speak louder than words.
Not vintage Mamet - the dialogue isnt up to quotable snuff - but it still packs a decent punch thanks to Ejiofors solid performance.