Redbelt (2008)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Emily Mortimer
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes

David Mamet is the type of director who has grown on me over the years. His unpredictable output is often either widely hailed or universally panned. He brought us his masterwork with an excellent and award winning play "Glengary Glen Ross", which became a legendary film that is actually one of my favorites. Although most people think he directed it, he only wrote it (it was brought to the screen by James Foley), but his dialogue is always such a huge part of the film that it often overshadows the direction and cinematography. Although perhaps he is more widely regarded as a writer than a film director, his films are the type that are often completely unmistakable simply for the way his characters talk, which can either seem deep, or even pretentious (as many would consider "The Spanish Prisoner") as they are often conflicted people who are tortured by circumstances out of their control.

David Mamet films have a somewhat lost in translation feel to them, and the often mind-boggling twists can either seem brilliant or simply awkward. Either way, I'm a huge fan of his work and try not to miss one of his films when one is released, although on a few occasions I was disappointed, I always admired him for even trying. He is one of those rare screenwriters that seem to be a dying breed, his unmistakable voice is instantly recognizable, and his worlds are often populated with some quirky types that at once seem unreal and cinematic but still so familiar because of their very human weaknesses.

It is obvious when you look at his whole body of work, his plays, essays and films, that they are all really part of one large work in progress. Regardless of the subject matter, his characters live in a seedy world that is unmistakable, rooted as much in film noir as in Mamet's love/hate relationship with Hollywood and the movie business he is very much a part of and yet seems to detest. Most of his films feature characters who many may consider a little bit morally corrupt, often with very real and human vices, such as gambling, drinking, and womanizing. If you take his whole body of work and look at it, they are really all about the same theme, a quest for truth in a world where nothing is as it seems, a world where you can't trust anybody, and where certain doom is not only in the hands of fate but also rooted in the weaknesses and vices of his troubled and deeply scarred characters. I think one of the main reasons Mamet directs is because he simply can't stand to see his plays put in someone else's hands.

For me, Mamet will always conjure thoughts of the now legendary "House of Games" from 1987 (his first directed film), and all of the ugly truths that came along with that film, along with the excellent "Homicide". He often uses the same actors, and Joe Mantegna is in many of his fourteen feature films, including this recent film, the surprising film that seemed to come out of nowhere, "Redbelt". It appears that Mamet is far from finishing his body of work, and if this is any indication, perhaps he still has a few tricks up his sleeve, I certainly hope so because "Redbelt" is one of his best films, so that should put to rest those of us who had put him on the irrelevant list, because it seems as if Mamet still has something to say. Or at least his troubled and flawed heroes seem more relevant in these absurd times than they ever did before. Either way, "Redbelt" really is a sneak attack, especially after the somewhat watered down offerings such as "Heist" (2001) and "Spartan" (2004). As far as directing films goes, he has seemed somewhat uninspired recently, and most of his best and most recognizable work has been as a writer, to some truly good films like "The Edge" (1997) or the underrated "American Buffalo" (1996), in fact it never seemed necessary for him to actually direct his films, because the dialogue made the films his no matter who was sitting in the director's chair, Mamet's voice is always the star of his movies.

David Mamet introduces us to Mike Terry (Chiwetal Ejiofor) a master of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu who has avoided selling out to the prize fighting circuit. Instead of using his talents to make money he has opened up a self-defense class, and when the film opens, he is training two of his most avid followers, one a police officer named Joe Collins (Max Martini) and the other simply called Snowflake (Jose Pablo Cantino). From these opening moments, we realize that Mike Terry is not the type of man who can be corrupted or misled, he is a man of discipline and integrity, and his level of concentration and skill when it comes to training his fighters at his academy is his true calling. This talent and charisma he has is not about ego, his true purpose is to help his students, especially Joe, who is struggling to attain a coveted Black belt. When things start to get ugly, Mike has to get between Joe and Snowflake before their inner rage explodes into real and raw violence. They don't have the discipline he has learned, not yet anyway, but that is something he is no doubt out to change. Although he has mastered the art of self-defense, it is the virtue, discipline and integrity these savage moves demand that truly inspires him. And it is his very integrity and lack of financial pursuits that tend to come off to those around him as arrogance, especially those in his family.

Inevitably in a Mamet film something strange and out of nowhere happens that changes everybody's life. In this movie it is when a young woman comes into the academy to mention she has hit Mike Terry's car, but since he has an almost superhuman detachment from material items his car doesn't cross his mind, he is more concerned with the frantic woman's panicked and anxious nature. He wants to help her somehow, but the panicked and somewhat drug-addled Laura Black (Emily Mortimer) inadvertently and defensively shoots out a window in the academy after Joe (the police officer) tries to help her out of her coat. We don't realize until the end of the film how many different and complicated events are to spring from this accident.

Mike Terry and Joe ignore the incident and therefore save Laura some jail time and some serious damage to her career as a lawyer. Eventually he gets to the bottom of what has troubled her, and she becomes a friend and student, and also offers some much needed legal advice later on. But it is his Brazilian wife Sondra's (Alice Braga) reaction to the incident that is as telling as anything. For all of his meditative spirituality, she is a pent up nervous wreck, and much of that she blames on his complete and defiant financial attitude, which hardly covers the bills at the Academy, let alone takes care of her needs, which she caters to by running a clothing business. Perhaps they are on different spiritual planes, but he takes her nagging and complaining in stride, even though he realizes he must put his anti-materialistic code behind him for once and request a loan from her brother, Bruno (Rodrigo Santoro) who owns a nightclub and has been trying to lure Mike into the unscrupulous world of prize fighting for years.

In another event that could only happen in a David Mamet film, something weird happens again: a self-loathing and alcoholic movie star named Chet Frank (Tim Allen, of all people, and you won't believe how perfectly he fits into Mamet's world of debauchery, this film is perfectly cast by Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas) somehow ends up insulting someone who picks a rather dangerous bar fight (after Mike has not had the nerve to request money from his brother in law) that almost ends with him getting his throat slashed by a broken beer bottle, until our hero steps in and kicks some major ass.

And in true action movie fashion, people start coming from every which way, with weapons, this must be one gritty bar that Bruno looks over. Still the scene is intense as hell and it is wonderful watching our hero do something besides annoy his wife with his old fashioned sense of justice and purity. Mike Terry is like 'The Dude' from "The Big Lebowski" if he had put down the water bong and picked up a taste for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighting philosophy. Eventually Chet invites Mike to his mansion, and he hints that he would like him to produce his next war film, and I'll stop there because the plot seems so insanely silly. Let's just say that our anti hero is forced to fight for money, and this is against his code, and sleazy Hollywood types steal his trademark marble philosophy and use it for a reality show…never mind. Describing the plot to a Mamet film is pointless, it's all about the dialogue and the performances when the film is well done.

Chiwetal Ejiofor's performance is magnetic, powerful and captivating, this guy is someone to watch because he has some serious talent, how else can he convey so much about who he is by barely uttering even a few sentences? I would almost go so far as to suggest he should be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, because the serene gravity and intensity he brings to this fascinating and troubled character is easily one of the best performances I've seen this year, it is a performance that sticks with you long after the film is over. And he was certainly born to be in David Mamet films, that much is certain. Especially since those qualities that I already mentioned are not considered qualities in this modern world that has no code or sense of honor, but is completely polluted with financial gain and lies and deceit. Mike Terry is an old fashioned Samurai soul trapped in an air conditioned nightmare of corporate greed and insecure defenseless people who are constantly being preyed upon by the stronger and more corrupt. But all of the poetry and transcendence in the world won't pay the bills, and his strengths are also his weaknesses, he is perceived as "addicted to poverty" by Bruno, and he takes this insult in stride also. Between his witch (but she is beautiful) of a wife, who obviously is more in love with money than any of his wild visions of truth, and her brother, it's amazing that our young anti hero doesn't lose his temper more often, perhaps Mike Terry wasn't made for these modern times. Or perhaps it is the other way around; perhaps he could make a change.

The truth is, the plot really goes all over the place in ways that can never really be explained, but let me tell you, this B-movie has so many moments of quirky brilliance that I really didn't consider the utter implausibility of any of it for a moment. Like many Mamet films, it is deeply flawed, but for some reason I can forgive these imperfections and vacations from logic in a Mamet film. But that's just me. Perhaps others may consider this (and other Mamet films) a complete waste of time.

Thanks to strong performances, especially the groundbreaking portrayal of Mike Terry of the flawed anti hero by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and a fast paced script that never goes where you think it is going, we have a picture I can highly recommend not only to Mamet junkies (of which I am) but also for anyone who is looking for a film about maintaining honor and respecting tradition in a world where everything and everyone is for sale. In short, an existential "Karate Kid", but really, underneath it all, it's very simple, the film simply follows the complicated paths that a few lives take after a window gets shot out at a fighting academy.

The visual quality of this film on Blu-ray is about as good as you could expect from such a dark, gritty film from a famous playwright. The film takes place in only a handful of locations and whatever visual flair that may be missing is more than made up for with character and story. Still, the 1080p image on this film, which is framed at 2.40:1 is very detailed, bringing to life the Los Angeles martial arts school and the dingy bars and overall atmosphere to life in very nice detail, with a sharpness that is certainly a few bars above the standard definition release, still the film had a limited budget, and it shows since the film doesn't necessarily have the sparkling intensity of some newer releases. Still, I have no complaints and the black levels were nicely reproduced. There is a small amount of film grain apparent in some scenes that really add to a film like experience. "Redbelt" isn't eye candy, no matter what format you release it on, that is simply true of many Mamet films. This Blu-ray certainly upholds the image very well, the colors are stable and I didn't detect any instances of edge enhancement to speak of.

The same is true of the audio, it features a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track that more than does justice to this film, which is short on surround action and heavy on dialogue, which is very clear and distinguishable throughout the film, although towards the end sequences, the surrounds do play a more important role, because that is where most of the fighting and action scenes occur. The music is also quite subtle yet it is reproduced on this Blu-ray disc very effectively and it sounds great. Once again, Mamet films aren't really demo material for any system, but this one sounds about as good as I've ever heard Mamet sound, and that says a lot, considering the rather great sounding DTS track the "Glengary Glen Ross" DVD provided.

The special features include a commentary track in which the filmmaker Mamet and Randy Couture (of UFC fame) discuss some fairly interesting topics, including Mamet's personal experiences with Mixed Martial Arts, and this is a very enlightening and insightful commentary. I'm sure many will be surprised that David Mamet has such a passion for something like Mixed Martial Arts, but it stands to reason that this brilliant and legendary screen writer can certainly back up his tough speaking dialogue with a world class ass whipping if need be. It turns out he has a Purple Belt himself, a fact I did not know.

A thirty minute 'Q&A With David Mamet' features the director fielding questions after a screening of the film, he discusses what it was like making such a film inside the Hollywood studio system.

'Behind The Scenes of Redbelt' and 'Inside Mixed Martial Arts' both examine not only filming aspects but also the history of this sport, which Mamet is obviously quite passionate about. It is obvious from the behind the scenes feature that Mamet was thrilled with Ejiofor and his performance as I expected. 'The Magic Of Cyril Takayama' features some tricks performed by a magician who has a small role in the film.

"Redbelt" on Blu-ray is certainly a surprisingly refreshing comeback for David Mamet and is worth picking up for the intense and highly impressive performance given by Chiwetel Ejiofor, which is simply amazing. We will certainly be hearing his name in the future, which will be good because many will undoubtedly be perplexed at how to pronounce it from just reading, it's pronounced 'CHOO-ih-tell "EDGE"-o-for', for the curious. David Mamet fans have never seen a more impressive display of his pictures on home video as it is presented on this Blu-ray, and the extras prove just how much he and the rest of the cast and crew believed in the project, so this Blu-ray disc is certainly something you don't want to pass up if you prefer your action with a little bit more intelligence than what we normally get these days.