Within a closed ring, two contestants attempt to batter each other into submission — it is the enduring formula for cinematic spectacle in Raging Bull, Rocky, Cinderella Man, and countless other boxing flicks. But how do you make compelling cinema when personal combat resembles meditation more than boxing? According to Mike Terry (Ejiofor), proprietor of Southside Jiu-Jitsu in Los Angeles: “Competition weakens the fighter.” He teaches his martial art as dharma, not duel. David Mamet, the macho master playwright, has in recent years become a devotee of jiu-jitsu, but in order to make it work on-screen, he needed some way to transform a traditional samurai discipline into a bankable conflict. His solution was to create a plot in which Mike is lured into exploiting his sophisticated skills mano-a-mano for money. Like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane, the marshal in High Noon who reluctantly postpones his retirement with a Quaker bride in order to attend to a final violent showdown, Mike abandons the sanctity of his martial-arts studio to enter the public arena as a prizefighter.
Cash and a consort corrupt him. A scam perpetrated by a sleazy movie producer plunges his Brazilian wife Sondra (Braga) into debt that they cannot pay except by cooperating with her brother, an unscrupulous fight promoter. Add to the sinuous, creaking plot Laura Black (Mortimer), a neurotic lawyer who accidentally breaks the window of Mike’s storefront academy, and Joe Ryan (Martini), a martial-arts acolyte whose fealty to Mike brings disaster to his family. “You are a sick fool,” Joe’s angry wife tells Mike, whose code of honor propels him into dishonor. A holy fool is what Mamet makes him, a sage spouting maxims applicable not just to jiu-jutsu. “A man distracted is a man defeated,” he states.
However, Redbelt is a likable distraction, especially for Mamet’s trademark staccato dialogue and the deft choreography of its martial-arts sequences. As for heroic Mike Terry, the only righteous man in a universe of scoundrels, he might deserve the legendary red belt. But I still wear the suspenders of disbelief.