The world of ‘Cage fighting’ or ‘Mixed Martial Arts’ (MMA) is still a mysterious world to most people and even the idea of cage fighting has a stigma to it. New films recently have tried to introduce the public to it, and Redbelt seems to represent both sides of the coin in this sport perfectly well.
With a fantastic cast, and an incredible writer and director David Mamet who is a world renown theatre writer with plays and films such as “Glengarry Glen Ross” under his belt, he provides the scripting gravitas a film like this needs.
Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a fantastic performance for the understated martial arts and Brazilian jiu-jitsu teacher Mike Terry. He plays the part of what it is to be a true martial artist perfectly. Sondra Terry, Mike’s wife played by Alice Braga gives a great performance and makes the struggle and chemistry between Chiwetel’s character and herself believable. Bruno Silva, Sondra’s brother is played by Rodrigo Santoro
Tim Allen puts in a fitting performance playing the slimy celebrity actor Chet Frank, who after being saved by Mike in a bar brawl, leads Mike on into thinking he can make all his money problems go away, but is actually using him for his own ends. Emily Mortimer plays Laura Black, a troubled lawyer who Mike helps face her demons, and Joe Collins one of Mike’s students is played by Max Martini.
Mike believes competition with money as the incentive weakens the fighter. This could rub Sondra’s family up the wrong way considering they are professional Mixed Martial Arts champions and fight promoters. After bills pile up and an accident in the dojo leaves them financially strained, Mike is given no other choice but to speak to Sondra’s brother about a loan. Mike finds out that Joe wasn’t paid for a job Mike had gotten him as a bouncer at his brother-in-laws club so he approaches Bruno about it. Bruno shuns him and offers Mike instead the chance to fight on an undercard fight in a promotion he is organising.
Mike is conned and has training manuals stolen from him which he sees being used on live television to help promote his brother-in-law’s big fight promotion coming up.
At the arena Mike learns that the fights are fixed and decides to end this charade.
At the end of a sparring bout Mike has his students choose from three marbles, two white and one black. Whoever picks the black one has to fight with a disadvantage. This disadvantage is chosen on a board and Joe, drawing the black marble has to fight with his hands tied. Joe in the process of trying to earn his black-belt (which many Brazilian jiu jitsu martial artists know takes a very long time) gets put through his paces.
We see some slick jiu jitsu here, some great sweeps and transitions from arm bars to triangles. The fighting isn’t always pretty in this film, but that’s what makes it feel more realistic. The fight develops with Joe about to pass out because of a standing katagatami (arm triangle choke) his training partner has on him.
To Mike’s frustration he tires out, however ‘there is always a way out’. The most important lesson in jiu jitsu is taught here is that when the pressure is on, you must keep calm, breathe and think your way out.
After Mike’s frustrating meeting with Bruno, Mike witnesses Chet being attacked at his brother-in-law’s club and you’re left with the feeling that Bruno set up the publicity.
Chet, a Hollywood film star who turns up on his own without security, is about to get violently attacked with a smashed bottle as Mike calmly disarms the guy from behind before getting blind sided by another attacker. He incapacitates both but is attacked by another guy with a knife which gives Mike a flesh wound. With the help of a walking stick nearby he disarms the knife and puts the attacker to sleep holding the stick against his neck to choke him. Chiwetel’s calm exterior and focus makes him so believable as a real martial artist (you wouldn’t believe he’d only started training three months before the film! It must have been an intense three months for him).
Mike is invited on to the set for Chet’s current big movie and while Mike is walking around we see one of the stunt coordinators showing the actors how to fight with a dummy knife. This is where we learn that Mike had a military background and they have a play fight where Mike disarms the stunt man before getting into a fast paced knife fight where Mike throws him to the floor.
“Redbelt” is an amalgam of film noir, western and a Samurai film all rolled into one and with the help of the loud beat of Japanese taiko drums underscoring every fight scene, this film continues building the tension up towards a powerful climax.
This zenith comes in the form of a brilliantly choreographed fight scene by the great John Machado who plays Ricardo Silva one of the brother-in-laws. When Mike realises what is going on, he decides to stop the tournament. It’s worth noting that it’s considered the height of disrespect to the great Professor who has come all the way from Japan to award his red belt to the winner. Walking to the inside of the arena, Mike very quickly and easily disables several security guards who try to stop him and then meets Ricardo his brother-in-law for one final monster fight showdown.
This is a great film which perhaps has something more to say than most martial arts films. It doesn’t just focus on the glory but the training and what it is to be a true warrior and martial artist.
- The writer and director David Mamet is a keen practitioner of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and had been studying the martial art for 6-years previously to making this film.
- Dan Inosanto, who played the professor, is the foremost student and leading protege of Bruce Lee, and starred in some of his films.
- Chiwetel Ejiofor trained for nearly three months before shooting, spending up to 12 hours daily studying and practicing Brazilian jiu jitsu.