Back in the day, I was a martial artist. I worked hard at it, and it was probably the only non-familial group I’ve ever really felt strong bonds with. Of course, a big part of the appeal is the shared suffering. (Martial arts training, if you take it seriously and it’s a serious school, has a sort of military feel to it.) But another part of the appeal, at least for me, was the complete impracticality.
This may come as a shock to you (all 14 of you), but I’m not very practical by nature. I have responsibilities, of course, and I handle those as efficiently as possible. But I do so precisely because I’m not very practical. I tend to be very A-to-B when I work, as well, because I know that my inclination is to expand problems until the solution becomes interesting.
I mean, really, if you want practical self-defense, buy a gun and learn how to use it. Knives, sprays, air horns and cell phones are probably all going to trump physical combat in a self-defense situation. Probably the most useful thing self-defense training can teach the average person is how not to panic in a threatening situation. (A gun’s no good if your hands aren’t steady enough to retrieve it.)
But more than that, there’s The Code. Warrior codes are great. Just knowing and aspiring to them tends to puff a person up (in a good way). But they all tend to have their roots in days of knights or samurai, and so, they aren’t very practical.
Maybe it’s a coincidence, but all of the real fighters and teachers of fighters that I have known have been poor. Even those who had made some money fighting or being in movies ended up broke.
Which brings me to David Mamet’s new work, Redbelt. Mike Terry (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) runs a serious Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu studio which isn’t financially successful. In fact, the loss of the front window is enough to seriously challenge its survival.
At the urging of his wife, Sondra (played by the gorgeous Alice Braga, whom I immediately pegged as a relative of Sonia Braga), Mike goes to a bar to borrow money from his brother-in-law, and the events that follow lead circuitously to what appears to be a fortuitous turn of events for everyone.
But the wheel spins again, and everything suddenly turns sour. Actually, it’s not entirely clear how much of what happens is chance. It’s entirely possible that the whole thing was plotted from the get-go by one or more characters. Or perhaps most of the events are sheer coincidence.
People can get hung up on those things. But none of that is the point.
The point is how Terry reacts, how his code survives contact with unpleasant real world choices, betrayal, disappointment, and other assorted ugliness.
I know the type of person being portrayed. And for the most part, this highly stylized story is an accurate portrayal. The only part that struck me as off was how quickly Terry takes up the opportunity to parlay his acumen into a potential job in the movies. The warrior types I’ve known tend to be highly suspicious and protective of what they do.
Now, the ending of this movie is more outrageous than any Rocky movie. There are things throughout the movie which may or may not be plot flaws–and for the most part I think it’s Mamet cutting out long-winded expository or hand-holding in favor of showing us the meat of the thing–but the ending is pure dramatic license.
This offended me not at all, but if you’re looking for something that’s hyper-realistic, this is not that film.
The acting is top-notch. The characters are well fleshed out, and better known actors (like Tim Allen as a narcissistic star, David Paymer as a loan shark, Emily Mortimer as a neurotic lawyer, and Joe Mantegna as a sleazy assistant) work well with the less known (such as Braga, who’s more famous in Brazil, Jose Pablo Cantillo as “Snowflake”, the only other student of Terry’s that we see, and Max Martini as the cop who’s down on his luck).
Ultimately, though, this is Ejiofor’s show and Terry’s battle, and the actor (and character) are both up to the tasks at hand.
The Boy also enjoyed the film, which is interesting, since the he recognized the unreality of the final scene. But I think it’s that the film overall didn’t insult his intelligence that he was able to enjoy and appreciate the drama of the last scene.
The fights weren’t bad either.