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May 14, 2008

FILM REVIEW: Redbelt Can’t Make Up Its Mind What It Is


By Nathaniel Shockey

When I went to see Redbelt, I was expecting the following plot: Great fighter reluctantly returns to the ring. Oddly enough, my biggest disappointment is that the movie strays from the cliché.


There is a lot of talk about what is cliché, and most of it is negative. But what is important is that there is a good kind and a bad kind, and also that the reason the cliché exists is that it works.


In Rocky V, instead of following the format of taking the movie’s climax to the ring, the Italian Stallion ends up having a street fight with his old apprentice, Tommy Gunn. And while there were a whole host of reasons that Rocky V was the worst of the Rocky movies, the fact that it ended on the streets instead of national television is actually a pretty effective way to sum up the movie’s shortcomings.


Redbelt, similarly, probably would have been a more effective film if it had followed a similar format to the first four Rocky movies and ended up in the ring. Instead, the climactic fight at the end of the movie takes place outside the ring when the main character, Mike Terry (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), fights a character we barely know and could hardly consider villainous. Add to this the bizarre ending scene when seemingly every character who owns a belt (yes, including the mythical “red belt”) decides to give it to Mike, and it is no wonder I left the theater feeling confused and unsatisfied.


Much of the dialogue is difficult to follow, which makes the movie not only confusing but also incredibly awkward at times. The main character has a strong Zen-like quality, which flows right out of his jujitsu. And so instead of having more typical conversations with people, he says things that, supposedly, cut to the core of the discussion. Unfortunately, the dialogue is not very well constructed, and it made it hard to understand exactly what was going on during a sizable portion of the movie.


The movie gets caught between trying not to follow the martial arts movie cliché without straying so much that people wouldn't find it entertaining. One of the plot’s main catalysts is when a bar fight breaks out, during which Mike defends a movie star, Chet Frank (Tim Allen), against a guy who is looking to start a fight and another random guy who comes out of nowhere with a knife. Where did this guy with the knife come from, and why was he trying to kill the guy defending the movie star? This is just one of many parts of the movie that made very little sense, and I suspect the reason the scene exists is that the film needed fight scenes in order to be considered a martial arts movie.


But it wasn’t quite a martial arts movie, and it wasn’t quite anything else either.


Terry, former soldier and present Jujitsu teacher, gets legally caught up with some movie producers and ends up so poor that he decides to fight in an International Fighting Association tournament in order to earn $50,000. Complicating things is a lawyer, Laura Black (played by Emily Mortimer), who accidentally shoots the window of Mike’s Jujitsu center. She ends up legally defending Mike, although not effectively enough to keep him from having to fight in the tournament.


The plot is almost good, but it is too confusing to follow closely, and the film’s reluctance to commit to being either a martial arts film or a film about a guy involved in martial arts held it back considerably.


The acting is actually very strong, most notably from Ejiofor and Mortimer. Ejiofor’s character, Mike, was not extremely complex, but he played him consistently and very believably. Mortimer has an especially vulnerable quality, which made her the most compelling character in the movie.


Writer and director David Mamet can obviously put together good scenes, and in Redbelt, he constructed a movie that is unique and interesting. But his failure to give the audience clarity in direction and general understanding kept a future Saturday afternoon television movie from being the really good movie it could have been.


3 out of 5 stars


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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