Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

Redbelt

 

By Don Hill

The hero myth is as old as the art of storytelling.  It has existed in various forms for millenia.  Greek demigods, superheroes, folk characters, mythic war heroes, and even religious figures all stem from the desire for normal people to be extraordinary.  The hero takes a different path, a higher road, and struggles to prevail while maintaining his morality.

Redbelt is a story of a hero caught in a situation that threatens his adherence to his moral code.  It is the story of everyday life-complications taken to an extreme conclusion.  It is the story of the samurai, of the bushido, and of the difficulty in maintaining that code in the morally ambiguous modern world.  That basic premise is as simple and as complicated as it sounds.  The story has been told thousands of times and has never been told before.  The internal struggle, the struggle of men and their inner demons is an intrinsic element of the art of drama whether in the form of literature, cinema, comic books or ancient myths.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Mike Terry, a jiujitsu instructor who runs a small academy, training cops, fighters and soldiers in self-defense techniques that he learned from "The Professor" (played by martial arts legend Dan Inosanto).  Terry is as noble as they come, making little money, refusing to compete in a world dominated by competition.  Emily Mortimer also stars as a lawyer who enters Mike's world after a car accident lands her at Mike's dojo.
Life seems to be turning around for Mike and his wife after he is invited into the celebrity community by an aging Hollywood action star (Tim Allen, in an uncharacteristic serious role).  Things soon spiral out of control for Mike as a series of coincidental events lead him to enter an MMA competition for $50K in prize money, directly against his personal code.  Without giving anything away, this movie has many twists and turns, going in completely different directions that you might expect.

David Mamet has taken his talent for characterization and storytelling and instilled new life into a genre that has run the gamut from beautiful modern classics to absolute drivel.  For every Seven Samurai there were four Roadhouses, for every Raging Bull there were six Marked for Deaths.  And for every Rocky was a Rocky V.  (Grin.)  Redbelt has exceeded a genre limitation and become a serious film about struggle and redemption.  It has joined the ranks of some of the most distinguished films about fighters and warriors of all time.  Mamet has made a film about martial arts that has transcended a genre or noir piece, and become a work of art. 

The movie never quite heads in the direction that you would think, and provides quite a few surprises during the course of the film.  This unpredictability carries the ending along to a magical, if unforeseen, conclusion.  Yes, of course there is the hero fighting the main bad guy at the end.  Without the final battle, there is no end to the story and thus no end to the hero’s struggle.  Mamet’s talent for storytelling becomes obvious in the fruition of the journey which allows the hero to come to terms with both his own self and the world.  This movie is the thinking man’s action movie, the martial philosopher’s fight movie, and that sets it apart from its contemporaries.

The acting is top notch (as one would expect from a director of this caliber), especially from star Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Several well known fighters and martial artists as peppered throughout the cast as well, giving it a sense of realism that may be lost on the casual movie-goer.  For a fight fan and former martial artist those cameos are an added bonus to an already great experience.  I understand that some may be turned away by a genre martial arts film and that would be a shame.  I would not like to live in a world where nobody ever watched The Shawshank Redemption because they didn’t like Caged Heat.

This movie is one of the finest fight movies I have ever seen.  I rank it among the greats of this decade and would list it alongside Rocky, Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, and Kurosawa’s finest samurai epics such as Seven Samurai or Yojimbo and as one of the best fight/martial arts movie ever filmed.  Congratulations to Mamet for combining two passions and making this fantastic film. 

4 ½ / 5 stars

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