Friday, May 16, 2008


The lightly marketed Redbelt (2008) is a lightly distributed, heavy tale of Jiu Jitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetal Ejiafor) and his teaching methods. The pacing is extremely slow. The viewer is introduced to his very quiet, laid back method of instruction. After his star pupil Joe Ryan (Max Martini) performs poorly in an exercise he has his assistant Snowflake (Jose Pablo Cantillo) give Joe a black belt fight where we are introduced to his method of potentially handicapping one fighter or the other.

After the fight, distraught lawyer Laura Black (Emily Mortimer) comes into the dojo. In a bizarre scene where Joe, Mike and his wife Sondra Terry (Alice Braga) pseudo-ignore her while trying to take her coat off for no apparent reason, Laura grabs and fires Joe's gun, breaking the front window. Snowflake rolls back in to see what happened.

Joe says to say wind blew in the window so attempted murder charges won't be fired. Since this incident is the plot point on which the entire story will soon hinge, that is pretty shoddy writing since it is not ever clear she was firing even in his general direction...or that she even meant to fire.

Be that as it may, it turns out the dojo is in deep financial straits with checks bouncing. Sondra convinces Mike to go to her brother, a seedy club owner.

When he arrives there Mike finds out Joe quit working at the job Mike got him there as a bouncer because the brother wasn't paying Joe. He confronts the brother about that and is then unable to ask about the loan.

Meanwhile, famed actor Chet Frank (Tim Allen) comes into the bar and gets into a fight. Mike rescues him which leads to an invitation to dinner.

The invitation includes an expensive watch. Mike, feeling indebted to Joe over the pay issue, takes a black belt to reward Joe, and gives him the watch, telling him to hawk it.

At dinner, both Terrys make a splash. She talks to the women about design, Mike to the men about martial arts. Just before they leave Chet asks Mike to join him on set the next day and the women make a deal to import Sondra's fabrics. Then Sandra has Mike show them his training gimmick with the 3 marbles.

The next day Mike becomes co-producer of the movie. When he gets home he is told by Joe that the watch was "hot" so Joe has been suspended. He calls Marty Brown (Ricky Jay), Chet's rep, to get it fixed. He gets left high and dry in the restaurant.

Meanwhile, he has begun teaching Laura. She offers her lawyer service when they see his marble routine was stolen by the IFA. In the confrontation it becomes obvious there is a huge conspiracy aimed at A) getting Mike to fight in competition, a move he has always rejected, and B) to make mass amounts of money for their organization, the IFA.

When Mike and Laura are winning, suddenly new evidence is produced; from somewhere the promoters got a hold of the spent chamber from the bullet Laura fired and they show other evidence, then blackmail them that if he does not fight. The threat is they will all go to prison; she for attempted murder, Mike and Jo for covering up the crime.

They say they will see them in court. When he gets to the dojo Snowflake sends him to Joes house. Arriving there he finds that Joe has shot himself in shame.

To be honest...I thought this was going to be the "plot twist". Everything to here was pointing to 2 things; 1) Joe had shown a couple character flaws, so he might have been setting Mike up and 2) money troubles had Sondra pushing him to fight. Her walk past Joe had earlier distracted him. So there was a build-up to maybe them having an affair and setting Mike up to fight. Now it seemed maybe it would turn out he had been murdered. Nope...that was the last mention of Joe in the movie. Kind of like the way Chet Frank disappeared. Was he part of the mass conspiracy or not? Irrelevant...he was a "Hand of God" character to move Mike to where they needed Mike to be.

When he gets home from Joe's, Mike finds out Sondra borrowed 30K from a loan shark to purchase fabrics and now can't get a hold of the women who had surrounded Chet at the dinner.

Desperate for money Mike finally agrees to fight on the under card of the big fight between Taketa Morisaki (Enson Inoue) and Jean Jaques Machado (himself). There he sees the professor, the only living Red Belt, who apparently had taught him. He then learns all the fights are fixed to ensure the "proper" fighter is handicapped in the fights, he being chosen to run the table. He quits the tournament. Then he finds out it was Sondra who set him up with the blackmail stuff, gave away his marble gimmick, and more.

When he finds that Machado is going to throw the fight to set up a money-making rematch he threatens to go to the ring and reveal all to everyone. He fights through the security guards. Then he fights Machado...and it gets picked up by the cameras so EVERYONE sees the fight.

He wins against Machado in the street fight. Morisaki honors him by giving him the belt that was to be the prize in the main event. Mike makes his way into the ring, calls for the microphone. He looks up to see the Professor bowing and giving him the red belt that he himself had received a few minutes previously.

And then the credits roll.


The credits roll.

Now, right or wrong I like my movies to have resolution. I consider myself a talented author and, when I want to write my own ending, I write my own story. I don't mind the occasional question in movies...will Tony Stark and Pepper Potts get it on, for example...will Los Angeles ever achieve racial harmony (Crash), and will Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) hook up with Nicky Parsons ( Julia Stiles)...but I don't want there to be NOTHING but questions.

Does Mike tell the crowd the truth? Do the guys who set up he and Joe get punished? What was Chet's role? And many, many more. Instead we don't know where he stands financially, we suspect he is getting with Laura and divorcing Sondra...does she REALLY owe the money?, we don't know what he is going to say to the crowd...

In other words, the movie mires itself in ambiguity.

There are people out there who praise this sort of movie as if it is greatness and stuff like Iron Man (2008) sucks because many people enjoy the latter, few the former. It is some sort of badge of honor for small numbers of people to like things, as if the fewer people who like it, the better it is.


Redbelt was on the verge of being a great, great movie. They just ended it 20 minutes before it finished. They started a bunch of story threads and left them laying around. Was it bad writing? Bad editing? I don't know.

Oddly, I still recommend seeing this movie. It is a bit dreary in colors and mood yet is also an interesting indictment of the MMA routine. Repeatedly they intimate...and once explicitly state...that any time 2 men are fighting for money in a ring it is a fixed fight. The presence of Randy "The Natural" Couture, the Gresham Oregon based MMA fighter as an announcer lends a certain credibility to that approach, even though he is distinctly an actor in the flick.

It is also all about teaching "There is always a way out" and using the opponent's force against him...something Mike Terry teaches but struggles to actually DO...

I am very conflicted over this movie. I wanted to love it. I enjoyed myself during it...right up until the credits rolled. But the story wasn't over...only the movie was.

That is NOT what I want in my movies. So it certainly knocked it down a peg. It gets my first ever multiple rating.

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