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Redbelt movie review: One part anti-hollywood, one part MMA

redbelt movie
I once said of Syriana — labeled as one of the smartest films of the last decade — "Just because it’s hard to follow, doesn’t mean it's smart."

Something similar can be said of David Mamet’s Redbelt. Just because it’s vague, doesn’t mean it’s Zen.

Redbelt follows jiu-jitsu master Mike Terry (Chiwetel Eliofor), who is down on his luck financially and forced — because of a strange series of events — to enter a mixed martial arts tournament run by manipulative, crooked promoters. Fighting for competition goes against Terry’s philosophy and integrity, but he must do it to save his dojo, as well as to satisfy several other debts he incurs during the course of the film.

Writer/director David Mamet (best known for writing the stage and screenplays for the brilliant Glengarry Glen Ross) spins a complex web of plot points — probably too complex for the length of the film. But Eliofor is outstanding as the lead actor, which makes the film interesting until the end.

It costars Tim Allen (who is surprisingly good as an aging action film star and boozehound), Alice Braga (Terry’s hardnosed, opportunistic wife), Max Martini (Terry’s prize pupil/police officer), Emily Mortimer (a frazzled lawyer whose inability to deal with a recent tragedy launches this entire series of events), Rodrigo Santoro (Terry’s corrupt brother-in-law), Joe Mantegna (a crooked Hollywood producer) and Ricky Jay (a crooked fight promoter).

It also features Randy Couture (as an MMA color commentator), Enson Inoue (as an MMA fighter), Jean Jacques Machado (as an MMA fighter), Rico Chiapparelli (as Sanchez, an MMA fighter) and Frank Trigg (as Sanchez’s corner man). Mike Goldberg cameos, as does Josh Rafferty from The Ultimate Fighter Season (TUF) 1 in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo.

Despite decent acting and many MMA notables, the film is filled with undeveloped storylines, many plants with no payoffs, and several limited conclusions. I still don’t know for sure why Laura Black (Mortimer) slaps Terry leading up to the film’s climax. And half the motivation for a central character’s suicide (i.e., problems at home) must have been left on the cutting room floor. At least, I’m hoping it was, because if it wasn’t included in the original script, Mamet’s plot has even more holes than I initially thought.

I was hoping the film would make up for its vagueness by including several kickass fight sequences. And while some of the fight sequences are good, I feel they could have been better ... or least there could have been more of them.

If you’re expecting a badass mixed martial arts film, you might be disappointed. Redbelt is more of a character study than it is a traditional martial arts film.

Although the film has several good one-liners, its dialogue often feels forced and clichéd. And while there are several interesting double-crosses, because the film only develops Terry’s character and leaves most of the remaining characters’ storylines largely underdeveloped, the motivation for some of these double-crosses is never fully understood.

Redbelt does shed a critical light on the backroom deals that Hollywood (and the promotion world in general) was built on. Although you can’t fit every one of its puzzle pieces together logically, its implied storytelling is largely anti-Hollywood, and for that I applaud it. Translation: It’s got brass balls, just the payoff might not be 100 percent fulfilled.

I’ve never been interested in watching a movie with director commentary, but this one could benefit from it.

Ultimately, Eliofor’s acting saves this film. And the climax, while very odd, was actually strangely satisfying to me.

Redbelt is everything Never Back Down isn’t, and vice versa. At the end of the day, that can only be a good thing. It’s worth my 10 bucks.

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