Mixed martial arts’ (MMA) return is near. Everything appears to be set for next week’s UFC 249 and the next week’s two planned shows are quickly coming together. Soon there will be no need to content ourselves with fictional tussles.
The insanely prolific David Mamet directs and writes the story of Mike Terry (Ejiofor), a believably eccentric Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) instructor in Los Angeles. After establishing Terry’s character in impressively organic fashion by showing one of his lessons, the film proceeds to introduce a seemingly aimless string of plot points: a distraught lawyer accidentally sideswipes Terry’s truck and inadvertently shoots out his gym’s window while grabbing Terry’s cop friend’s gun in a panic. Terry’s wife Sondra chews him out for his lack of financial liquidity. Terry breaks up a bar fight involving a Hollywood actor (Tim Allen), who enlists Terry in helping ensure his latest film is authentic.
All the while, we see glimpses of a UFC-ish MMA promotion, whose top fighters are played by BJJ legend John Machado and PRIDE badass Enson Inoue. Outside of an early glimpse into their main office, where two appropriately greasy executives brainstorm ways to drum up interest for their next big event, its existence is usually shown via TV snippets led by Dylan Flynn (Randy “The Natural” Couture himself).
I was happy to spoil “Never Back Down” because it was terrible, and for as good as “Warrior” was, it was so predictable that there wasn’t much to spoil. I genuinely do not want to spoil “Redbelt;” the way it brings its deftly juggled threads together is its strongest feature. There’s an incredible transition from “where are they going with this?” to “oh damn, that’s where” at around the halfway mark. At that point, it went from something I was watching for work to something I genuinely wanted to see through, especially with Ejiofor’s captivating performance carrying it through the slow patches.
Unfortunately, this is where the wheels fly off. I won’t say how it got there, just what comes after, but here’s a warning anyway.
Terry eventually finds himself fighting in an MMA tournament, which he discovers is fixed. After initially storming out, he returns to confront the organizer, effortlessly grappling his way past security until Machado’s character, Ricardo Santos, blocks his path. The two duke it out outside the ring, the tournament’s camera and the crowd riveted by the tussle. On the verge of passing out from a rear-naked choke, Terry spots his master in the crowd and musters up the strength to escape the hold and choke out Santos. Inoue’s character, Taketa Morisaki, presents Terry with the golden belt he’d meant to put on the line against Santos, and when Terry reaches the ring to tell the audience what’s going on, his master arrives to promote him to red belt.
They embrace, roll credits.
It’s just such a stupid climax, and that’s without even mentioning the ridiculous “handicap” gimmick that drives the plot. The movie had done an amazing job of crafting a believable, engaging narrative, only to throw it all away for a finale that wouldn’t be out of place in a late-era Steven Seagal flick. It’s not just that it puts your suspension of disbelief in a twister until something goes “snap;” it doesn’t mesh at all with the film’s themes, which see Terry struggling to live an honorable, principled life in the face of constant misfortune.
Aside from the narrative foibles, the actual MMA part of “Redbelt” falls well short. Mamet — a BJJ purple belt under Renato Magno — keeps the ground exchanges realistic, but poor cinematography make them incredibly difficult to follow. I can’t even give the film credit for showing an Ezekiel choke finish, as the actual move was impossible to parse amid the tangle of limbs and gi.
To make matters worse, despite the presence of Couture and Inoue, acknowledgement of Royce Gracie’s UFC run in the event’s program, and a cameo from Mike Goldberg, the film’s portrayal of MMA as a sport is regressive schlock. Beyond the aforementioned “handicap” feature that no thinking fan would buy as legitimate, it’s regularly derided and presented as a cartoonishly corrupt enterprise full of match fixing. Not that MMA isn’t corrupt, but it’s within the same tolerances as every other sport.
Also, and I recognize that this is the pettiest complaint imaginable, one of the organizers calls a single-elimination tournament a “round robin.”
I get that I filled the last several paragraphs with disappoint vitriol, I do still think “Redbelt” is worth watching — what it does well, it does extremely well. Just don’t go in with the mindset of an MMA fan.