Saturday, August 30, 2008

Redbelt: Grade A

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Emily Mortimer, Joe Mantegna, David Paymer, Ricky Jay. Writer-Director David Mamet.

David Mamet, lord of talking heads, doing a martial arts movie? Would the characters actually fight, or only talk about fighting? But it turns out to be a good blend of action, dialog and characterization. Ejiofor radiates presence. I see Jeff Goldblum in his slack-jaw, heavy-lidded stare and a young Samuel L. Jackson in his voice and movements. He was a showstopper in Children of Men and a standout in American Gangster. He is magic here.

He plays an impoverished jiu-jitsu instructor in Los Angeles, married to a Brazilian wife whose brother runs a shady bar and promotes martial arts contests. Mortimer is in some kind of unspecified distress when she stumbles into the martial arts studio, where in her jumpiness, she accidentally discharges a gun that a police officer inexplicably left unattended on a countertop, loaded, with the safety off. That triggers, so to speak, a Rube Goldberg contraption of a plot.

Ejiofor saves a Hollywood actor (Allen) from getting beat up in the Brazilian bar. Allen is impressed, invites Ejiofor to consult on his film that coincidentally involves jiu-jitsu. Meanwhile, Ejiofor’s wife borrows money from a loan shark (Paymer, who we do not see enough of). As the screws tighten, Ejiofor is forced to compete in a fixed fight to get the money he needs. He thus moves from the highest spiritual principles of martial arts to participating in a fixed fight to save his hide. Yet the movie ends before we learn how he accommodates that change, or indeed, if he even wins the money. Emily Mortimer gives a wonderful performance even though her character is nonsense.

At first, Mamet’s sophisticated phrases do not fit into the mouth of the jiu-jitsu instructor. But later the dialog calms down and is strong enough to drive the story through its implausible coincidences. It is possible that Mamet intended the multiple unexpected plot turns to mirror the inner action of jiu-jitsu itself, but if so, that strategy was not effective. Mamet is a student of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which is a mix of the ancientJapanese martial art with boxing and kick boxing. The action scenes are good, although not very exciting. They are shot with close-ups and short edits so you have the feel of a fight without really seeing one. The best of the action is when Ejiofor demonstrates how particular moves work. The Brazilian flavor, with smatterings of Portuguese, add color. This is not a masterpiece, but the acting, directing, dialog and sets are so strong that I remained completely engaged.

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