15 May 2008 | keitharan
Red Belt deserves a Yellow Belt
Advertising an all-star cast, the trailer for Red Belt, and two generous reviews from otherwise reliable TV sources, inspired hope in me that Red Belt might reset the bar for martial arts action films, marking an end to the Bruce Lee era, exiting that dragon and entering a new era of fight realism adjoined to excellence in cinema. I believe David Mamet wanted to make such a movie in Red Belt, and failed.
Key themes in Red Belt, and the overriding moral dilemma confronted by the lead character, simply did not amount to much. They present a character, Mike Terry, self-defense instructor, man with profound conviction to his principles, place him in a silly, laughable, and totally unbelievable situation, and gets worse from here.
There are few fight scenes in Red Belt, and this was okay by me because the goal, I thought, was to make a real movie, unlike film fodder from Charles Norris et al,where plots are the meek excuse for flashy, over-choreographed fight action at every street corner, and good guys always prevail.
Sadly, problems for Red Belt begin at the plot, which was not terribly engaging or inspiring, and riddled with more holes than gay porn. Some plot development was just plain silly, and other story lines, like the idea that professional fighters in the violent cage of MMA, would sign onto a fight card and willingly subject themselves to a severe physical handicap - an arm tied down to the waist,and face a fighter sans handicap, or that a state regulatory agency would give the stamp of approval to such an event, is absurd, if not downright boneheaded. The whole idea of pitting unequals against each other, is contrary to the essence of MMA, where men bring their very best against that of other men. How Mamet lost sight of this is beyond me.
Besides the plot's fatal flaws, the fight scenes are sabotaged by poor camera angles, and less than thrilling technique. No disrespect to the fight choreographers, Rico Chiapparelli and John Machado, both of whom could beat me down with a mild case of halitosis,the fight scenes in Red Belt could have been more dynamic and still manage to capture realism. Even the two fight scenes critical to the plot, were dull. MMA and BJJ enthusiasts will be disappointed.
A few twists of the camera lens, an omoplata here, a gogoplata there, could not have rescued Red Belt from its flawed plot, but would have made a difference to appreciating the fight aspect of the film. And, for BJJ & MMA fans, who I gather make up a noteworthy fraction of Red Belt's audience, more dynamic fight action would have shaken some focus off the insufferable plot,and offered something worthwhile to jabber upon. At this end, the trick that Mamet missed was to achieve interesting, exciting fight action, and unfortunately,as fight action goes, Red Belt taps to a submission in the first round,via guillotine choke.
I am a fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mike Terry, lead character), and I would not have gone to Red Belt had he, or an actor of his caliber not starred in the movie. In this role I found myself liking him, but feeling relatively neutral about it. This I am sure is due to the plot issues, and unimpressive script. It is not bad writing, nor is it good, and I expected better from a Mamet film. And Ejiofor, should he want to go down the path of action star,deserves a better vehicle.
The tag line for Red Belt, "There is always a way out. You just have to find it," is a hokey rip from BJJ academies. It is cheesy to build a script upon cliché. They also abuse the axiomatic wit that martial artists say about the colored belt system, that belts are symbolic and, "just hold up your pants" - a poor choice to embrace twice, and canned lines of this ilk are no help to an already struggling script.
Red Belt did have an all-star cast including cameos by notable MMA/BJJ enthusiasts from the acting world, and all-stars from the MMA world. But,no outstanding performances, not even Ejiofor.
I need to be fair and note that I was expecting the MMA guys to be awkward and stiff under the lens, but they were not half-bad, and exceeding my expectations. I enjoyed seeing familiar faces, like Frank 'TTs' Trigg who showed up in a couple scenes, but no lines despite showing crossover talent at other venues. Randy Couture was surprisingly good. Not great, but good. And I'm not just saying that to spare myself a beating from a man who is arguably the biggest bad-ass to ever pummel the planet.
I would be remiss not to say that I did not hear one mention of the Gracie family in Red Belt. There is something just wrong about that. The movie, at its end, was all about paying homage and honor to a grand master, and dismissing the Gracie name is the equivalent to not mentioning Bruce Lee in a documentary about martial arts movies. I suspect personal rivalries are behind this decision.
Time to ring the bell on the final round: - MMA & BJJ fans will be disappointed by the fight scenes. - Fight movie fans will be disappointed that the movie is shy on fight action. -General movie fans will be unimpressed by the script,and aghast at the plot. -Star power could not rescue this movie.
Borrowing on the tag line, for Red Belt there may have been a way out (from the curse of sub-par martial arts movies), but they did not find it.
Unanimous Decision: Red Belt deserves a Yellow Belt.