The hero of David Mamet's film Redbelt is Mike Terry, a man with an abnormally high moral code. It is not an exaggeration to say that there are not many men like him. Mike ekes out a meager existence running a studio for training fighters. He is studied, a black belt, nearly a master. We know this implicitly. The film opens on a training session, with Terry as benevolent teacher, hovering over his fighters and firing sage bullets of spoken advice. "You train people to fight?" someone asks him early on. "I train them to prevail," he replies. It's not hard to quickly understand and appreciate this philosophy. In his studio, with this students, Mike is absolutely at peace. But when trouble very literally walks in through the door, he finds his simple existence disrupted and slowly poisoned by the outside world. Not so much a fight movie as a movie about a fighter, Redbelt is the journey of Mike Terry from a place of comfort to a place of intense compromise, and though the film ends in a victorious moment, his journey surely does not.

To detail the plot of Redbelt would be a chore, and this should be taken as a compliment. It is not a chore to watch, however, as the labyrinthine twists and turns (which are extensive even by Mamet standards) are all richly dependent on one another. Suffice it to say, Mike is broke, and his wife dissatisfied. The studio cannot pay it's own bills. Enter a movie star, who befriends him first by accident, then by way of lavish promises. Mike does not resist. He is then pulled into a myriad of doublecrosses, betrayals, challenges and surprises. The fodder of samurai films and boxing noirs, Mamet's acknowledged influences. To reveal anything else is not neccessary.

Looking at Redbelt from the movie snob POV, there are many joys to behold. Tim Allen is a remarkable choice, perfectly in line with the kind of underutilized personnel Mamet has always employed (like Ed O'Neill.) Though he has no staggeringly big moments, he plays the alcoholic movie star Chet with ease (apparently Mamet's love of Galaxy Quest is genuine.) We also, as usual, get a look at most of the old Mamet gang, his cast of loyal company players like Ricky Jay, Jack Wallace, J.J. Johnston, etc., whose faces only get better as they age. Chiwetel Ejiafor, as Mike Terry, has exactly the calm, deliberate, zen quality the role requires. He makes us believe that a man of these convictions could actually exist. But this belief is pretty far removed from reality, and Mamet in fact spends most of the second half of the film showing us why. He tears down Mike's cherished ideas and drops him, unapologetically, into the crooked, business-driven world. Everyone else in the movie is making money. And finally, at his lowest, after being beaten and stolen from, Mike attempts to join their ranks.

The film is interesting to ponder at a few meta-levels. Mamet's distaste with the Hollywood system is hardly a secret, and it is on display here in the contrast between the grand spectacle of the MMA circuit and the untainted artistry of Terry's studio. Terry's struggles with money also smartly predated our current financial crisis, with the elite ring bosses and deciders passing their greed and power lust on down to the working class "fighters." There may even be some incredibly buried political commentary in there as well (Tim Allen as Bush? Any takers?)

But the simple lesson to be learned is that everything that came down on Terry from above was poison. He was happy in his simple, pure way of life. But forces pulled him away. We see the beauty of his teachings turned into spectacle and corrupted for monetary gain. We feel Mike's shame. When the night of the big fight comes, even the grandmaster, the Redbelt himself, is in the audience. Everybody, it seems, is doing business. Still, Mike refuses to let go. It's him versus them, and Mike fights back. He fights for what he believes, and he clings to what he knows. Right up to the end, Mamet correctly refuses to reconcile these two corners of the ring.
A supremely poetic fantasy, as all great fight movies are, Redbelt is also a fine lesson in realist ethics. You can hide from dishonor, it says, but dishonor will only seek you out. You can attempt to live by a strict moral code, but life, with all it's complications, is nothing but a crooked fight. Believe in something, however, and, just as in the ring, there will always be an escape.

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