“I don’t train people to fight, I train them to prevail.”
“Competition weakens a fighter.”
These are the mantras of jiu-jitsu instructor Mike Terry, the main character of Redbelt, the latest major motion picture based on mixed martial arts.
The movie follows the story of Terry, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (American Gangster, Inside Man), who has all the skills to be successful in the world of prize fighting, but is dead set against joining it. He devotes himself to a life of honour and purity. For him, the core of martial arts is as a means of personal protection and that’s what he teaches.
Terry demonstrates to his students at his Los Angeles gym — and for the benefit of us the viewers — no matter what situation you find yourself in, even when it appears out of your control, there is always an escape, a way to turn things around in your favour. The key is knowing what it is, not to panic and to simply execute it.
His principled way of thinking extends outside the gym as he tries to help a couple of people in need — a police officer he is training to become a blackbelt and woman who was a victim of rape — whose paths cross late one night at Terry’s gym.
However, the harsh reality of life hits hard when he does not have the money to keep his gym running. His Brazilian wife, played by Alice Braga (I Am Legend), pleads with him to do whatever is necessary so they can stay afloat, even seek the help of her brother who runs a mixed martial arts business. But Terry is unwilling to do anything that would compromise his beliefs.
While at a bar looking to handle a problem for his policeman friend, Terry saves the life of action-movie actor Chet Frank, played by Tim Allen (yes, that Tim Allen). Frank, who says he came to the bar without his bodyguard looking to get into a fight, is impressed with Terry’s ability to subdue a number of attackers without throwing a punch. He invites Terry and his wife to a dinner at his home and their encounter eventually leads to a couple of business proposals — legitimate ones — that would free Terry and his wife from their financial troubles.
It turns out not to be that simple, however, and Terry soon finds himself in a situation where he has no choice but to take part in a competition unlike any other. And one that does not jive with what he has devoted his life towards. The question is, caught in a situation seemingly out of his control, will he be able to find his escape?
The movie, written and directed by David Mamet (who earned screenplay-writing Oscar nominations for Wag the Dog and The Verdict), is another one that attempts to capitalize on the current success and popularity of mixed martial arts. Yet ironically the very premise of the story is counter to MMA as a sport. The protagonist is against competition in all forms. He believes it devalues the discipline, and is also leery of the possibility that any one fight might be fixed.
Therefore, any success by the hero in this movie is seemingly a loss for MMA. Which makes it somewhat funny seeing guys like UFC champion Randy Couture and commentator Mike Goldberg making cameo appearances.
Goldberg has one scene, as himself, in which he poses the question to another: “The explosion of mixed martial arts is unbelievable. Why do you think the sport is so popular?” The movie cuts to the next scene without an answer.
Couture, who has been turning his attention to an acting career, has a slightly larger role as he plays Dylan Flynn, a commentator for the promotion called the International Fighting Association. Flynn throws out lines like, “I love it, and I think boxing is as dead as Woodrow Wilson.” I’ll say one thing. I hope we can expect better acting from him in his upcoming roles.
As for Ejiofor, his is superb. He delivers a performance filled with heart and while it won’t turn you on or off MMA competition, it will make you wish you could have him as a trainer. The supporting cast, with an interesting mixture of unknown newcomers and old-school veterans, is strong as well.
As far as the plot goes, Redbelt — which refers to a master professor who has achieved a level higher than blackbelt and, as Terry puts it, there’s only one — is not about MMA but martial arts in general, and how it’s used as a means to an end. For one man, it’s for real-life combat and self-defence. For those around him, it’s used to make a buck.
The script is solid, the scenes well produced, and the story compelling. But it is basically an intellectual drama, not an action flick. You don’t get to see many MMA techniques, you mostly hear references to them. In fact, in many ways, the movie would be exactly the same if MMA did not exist.
Redbelt explores what kind of a man it takes to stick to his principles at all costs. If you like those types of films — ones with soul — you should enjoy this one.
But if you’re looking for a film filled with mixed martial arts action, you’ll be a tad bit disappointed.