There’s something magical about a writer directing his or her own work, provided that writer is good. I think that’s because as a screenwriter, you can’t help but pre-direct the film in your mind as you’re writing. Redbelt is a perfect example of a great writer, taking an excellent story to film, without the vision getting blurred by a separate director. Unfortunately, Redbelt is also a perfect example of why a separate director is sometimes necessary.
This story and film by David Mamet may very well be a Mary Sue allegory for his own career. Redbelt follows Jiu-Jitsu master Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is not only a martial arts expert, but one of those rare people who have conviction and an unshakable moral compass. One night a disturbed woman enters his academy and accidentally discharges a police officer’s sidearm, nearly killing the police officer who is also a student of Mike Terry’s. This random — if not unbelievable — moment sets off a chain of events that has Terry embroiled with seedy fight promoters, actors and Hollywood types. He’s not only forced to protect his training technique as his enemies steal it, but must consider breaking his code of never entering competitions, in order to pay the ever increasing debt heaped on him by those close to him.
Chiwetel Ejiofor easily carries the film with a highly nuanced performance. His Mike Terry is a man who has mastered himself. Even under stress, he seems totally in control: exactly what you would expect from a martial arts master. I think what’s more enjoyable than the performance, is the character of Mike Terry. He unerringly does good. He doesn’t turn in the woman who nearly kills the cop and later even offers to train her. When Terry saves the life of A-list Hollywood actor Chet Frank (Tim Allen), Terry is rewarded with a $20000 watch, which would settle a lot of debts if he sold it. Instead, he gives it to a friend he feels he owes. Terry constantly does what he feels is right, but at every turn his good deeds are twisted against him. Yet, he stays true to his code, only breaking it when a greater good must be satisfied.
At times, Redbelt seems to get sidetracked on overdeveloping aspects that don’t go anywhere. Early on, Terry is invited to a movie set where he demonstrates his military knowledge, though it doesn’t really go anywhere except as a very elaborate way to get him to reveal his training methods. It’s not necessarily jarring, but it does seem overcooked.
The directing is, for the most part, adequate to excellent. A few inspired scenes have inaudible dialog or half-conversations that erupt in a kind of revelation that I feel only more intelligent audiences will appreciate. That shouldn’t be a problem, however, since moviegoers expecting to see non-stop MMA cage fights will probably walk out 45-minutes into the film. Speaking of which, the climactic fight scene would have benefited from a director who’s used to filming such sequences. As we have it, Redbelt kind of cops out with too-tight closeups and cropped shots filtered through television screens.
At the end of the film, it’s nice to see that Mamet is not above the odd Industry film convention. All of the characters are present for the climax. Everything wraps up impossibly neatly. We’re even left the feel-good message that sticking to your convictions will eventually pay off and be recognized by those that matter.
All things considered, Redbelt is a wonderful film that should be seen by anyone that loves fresh characters, good dialog and solid performances wrapped in an intriguing story and plot.