When is a martial arts movie not a martial arts movie, but still a martial arts movie nonetheless? When it’s writer/director David Mamet’s REDBELT, an excellent character study about a professional jiu jitsu instructor whose life becomes an escalating world of shit when a troubled woman wanders into his studio to inform him that she's accidentally damaged his car. It's impossible to review the movie from that point on without giving away a very carefully constructed story involving honor, loyalty, and all the usual stuff one finds in a martial arts movie, but let me assure you that while in nearly any other movie of this ilk all of those things would add up to a by-the-numbers actioner, but REDBELT is anything but average. The things that I can discuss without ruing the movie for you are the following:
- Protagonist Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is not the martial arts avenger common to the genre. Instead we meet and get to know a decent and thoughtful man who believes fervently in the art as a sacred thing, a way of life not to be exploited, and we don't find his attitude self-righteous or corny in the least.
- Tim Allen plays a Hollywood action star with issues and its refreshing to see him step outside of his comedic persona to turn in a really good serious performance.
- There is no trace of the unrealistic bullshit that often mars films within this genre, and the combat moves are not flashy or spectacular; if you've ever seen a fight that involves real grappling, you know the kind of moves I'm talking about.
- Although REDBELT can fairly be called a "martial arts film," it's more honestly described as a film about a guy who happens to be a martial artist, and it examines the world of himself and other serious modern-day practitioners.
- If you're looking for a slam-bang, foot-up-the-ass chopsocky actioner a la Steven Segal, you may be disappointed by REDBELT, but if you're willing to accept a movie about a total badass that features comparatively little proving of said badassery, you owe it to yourself not to miss this film.
- Writer/director David Mamet is himself a serious student of Brazilian jiu jitsu, and his considerable experience with it informs the whole production with an authenticity and realism wholly absent from about 98% of movies dealing with the fighting arts. But then again, those films aren't supposed to be realistic.
- The film features several real-life fighters and martial arts legends, but I nearly leapt out of my seat when one of my heroes, Daniel Inosanto, co-founder of Jeet Kune Do with Bruce Lee, showed up toward the end. He doesn't fight, but just the fact that he's in it made me smile from ear-to-ear.