Redbelt is writer/director David Mamet’s ode to jiu-jitsu, of which he himself is reportedly a purple belt. Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a struggling black belt jiu-jitsu instructor, one of the few remaining practitioners of martial art in its authentic Japanese origins. The professional combat sport association MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) has tainted the martial art with commercialism and spectacle akin to professional wrestling. In contrast, Terry is a noble warrior with an absolute code of honor, like Robert Scott (Val Kilmer) in Mamet’s Spartan (2004). Terry is a former special forces soldier, with a past in one or both Gulf Wars he does not wish to discuss. One of his favorite aphorisms becomes something that he realizes he must live up to himself: “There is no situation from which you cannot escape.” He’s a fearsome fighter, able to win a bar fight without throwing a single punch. But another of his aphorisms, “competition is weakening,” reflects his choice to teach self-confidence and reliance, not aggressive combat.
Like many of Mamet’s films, Redbelt features many of his regular stable of actors: Rebecca Pigeon (Mamet’s wife, who also performed the music), Ricky Jay, David Paymer, Joe Mantegna, and a cameo from Ed O’Neil. Anyone familiar with Mamet’s films would know to suspect a character played by any one of these actors is up to some mischief, especially if the latter two are seen to be in any kind of collusion. Significantly for a playwright/writer/director known for his characteristically dense dialog, the last long sequence is mostly wordless.
Mamet states Redbelt is firmly in the fight film genre, singling out the two recent examples of Million Dollar Baby and Cinderella Man. Like the superb Spartan, it’s also something of a samurai movie. Just don’t call it a martial arts or action flick. It also includes healthy doses of two other Mamet obsessions: the long con and the corruption inherent in business. The most obvious advantage of the long con in storytelling terms is that it automatically provides a structure for a fiendishly complex plot, as it did for both House of Games (1987) and The Spanish Prisoner (1997).
Mamet’s recurring theme of institutional corruption in the business world is probably best expressed in Glengarry Glen Ross. But in his book Bambi Vs. Godzilla (2007) and movie State & Main (2000), Mamet reveals the one particular business that fascinates him the most: Hollywood. As he states in the electronic press kit included in the Redbelt DVD, moviemaking is a business like any other, but the particulars of its moral bankruptcy fascinate him. Terry is seduced by Hollywood as embodied by aging action star Chet Frank (Tim Allen). Frank first finds leverage in the fact that Terry is broke, but also recognizes that he is is secretly prideful, and seeks approval and recognition for the burden of honor he has been carrying for so long. These flaws make him manipulatable. Frank initially seems to provide the solutions to his problems, but turns out to be the precise inverse of his name: all empty promises, façades, scams, and pretense.
The two corrupt worlds of Redbelt are both hungry for meat: professional sports need fighters to run through the grinder, and the movie business eats up ideas as raw material for its product. They find both in Mike, and neither wants to pay for what they try to take from him.