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Honor, Duty, Jiu-Jitsu

David Mamet takes on mixed martial arts.

12:00 AM, May 9, 2008 • By SONNY BUNCH
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THE THREE-ACT STRUCTURE of the first film in a superhero franchise varies little. The first two acts introduce us to our hero, with excruciating detail about how he got his powers and what sort of trauma inspired him to use them for good. In the last act--which is typically rushed, unenjoyable, and anti-climactic since the first 80 minutes tell us how the hero came to be and the filmmakers need to wrap this thing up in 95--the hero finally gets down to business, showing off his superpowers and doing all sorts of super-stuff. Roll credits.

As Henry A. Lee points out at Cracked.com, two acts of exposition are unnecessary and annoying. "For some unknown reason," he writes, "tradition states that the first movie must consist largely of something no one in the audience paid to see: The superhero as he lived before he could do any cool superhero stuff. Other genres don't feel the need to do this; Die Hard didn't spend the first half of the movie with John McClane taking target practice, [First Blood] didn't spend an hour showing Rambo in basic training. Why can't we just jump in?"

The new David Mamet film Redbelt takes lack of exposition to a new extreme. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Mike Terry, a jiu-jitsu instructor with an ironclad code of honor. Though his dojo struggles to stay in the black, he refuses to enter competitions to drum up business or score easy cash because "competition weakens the fighter." After he saves Chet Frank (Tim Allen), a boozed-up actor looking for a fight, from a beating in a bar, Terry's money troubles appear to be over: Frank wants to make Terry a producer on his new film, and Frank's wife Zena (Rebecca Pidgeon) offers to buy $30,000 worth of homespun fabrics from Terry's wife's (Alice Braga).

Since this is a David Mamet film, things fall apart in an unnecessarily complicated manner, excoriating the entertainment-industrial complex in the process. But Redbelt's heart is not the twists and turns, as in Mamet's Spartan, but a careful character study of a man who lives a life based on honor, and the corrupting influence of money. Yet to understand how honor shapes Mike Terry's life we need to know something about the man. How does Mamet tell us about Terry's character?

Very subtly. Throughout the film we get hints about Terry's life: He's no longer a drinker; he used to be in the military and may have done some things he regrets. We find out that he trained in Brazil with The Professor, some sort of jiu-jitsu grandmaster. But none of these things are ever explained: Mamet challenges us to figure out for ourselves what's going on in Terry's head.

If Redbelt had been made by a director/writer less sure of his abilities--or if it were a superhero movie--the first act would have opened in the Iraq desert, just prior to the First Gulf War. Lieutenant Terry, a member of Delta Force with a knack for hand-to-hand combat, engages the enemy but commits some sort of atrocity--accidentally, of course. Trying to purge his memories he takes to drink, alienating friends, family, and fellow soldiers. Dishonorably discharged, Terry treks into the Brazilian jungle where he encounters an enclave of jiu-jitsu practitioners. After years of hard training, Terry recovers his honor and wins the respect of The Professor, promising to spread his teachings across North America.

Only then could Redbelt progress to the world of mixed martial arts and its attendant corruption. All this might offer us a better understanding of the "whats" in Mike Terry's life--what drove him to drink, what made him commit to a code of honor--but like competition for fighters, exposition weakens moviegoers. Mamet's goal is to make us more aware as viewers: Instead of being spoon-fed answers, Mamet makes us work for them--and allows us to interpret Terry's actions however we see fit.

Best known for his tongue-twisting dialogue, David Mamet squeezes great performances out of Tim Allen and a cadre of real-life mixed martial artists, such as Randy Couture and John Machado. Allen's performance as a clueless, washed-up actor captures the decadence and dishonor of the Hollywood Mamet so famously despises, and the MMA types (complete with cauliflower ears) lend a physical credibility Redbelt might otherwise have lacked.

Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.