REDBELT: David Mamet's Passionate Fight Film Homage
by Dr. Craig Reid
In what has already been a successful beginning of the year for martial arts films with NEVER BACK DOWN and FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, the summer movie blockfest officially gets under way in Hollywood this week with two major releases: IRONMAN, and yet another must-see martial arts-based film, REDBELT.
Bruce Lee once said that a black belt is best used to hold up one's trousers, yet with REDBELT there's more at stake than holding up clothing. The film is also about preventing martial arts films from falling down. Because when you have one of Hollywood's top A-list director/screenwriters making a film purely about martial arts?even though it is not really a martial arts film, but merely a story stemming from his own passion for life and being?we are talking about a completely different league when it comes to legitimacy of the genre.
What passion prompted Mamet, a Hollywood heavy who wrote screenplays like HOFFA, THE UNTOUCHABLES, HANNIBAL, WAG THE DOG, and RONIN, to break what is considered dangerous new ground in a genre that's not known for any compelling film awards beyond the "oohs" and "aahs" of action, costumes and cinematography?
Mamet says, "I have spent five years training with a great jiu-jitsu master, Renato Magno, and associating with the Machados and Gracies. They, in their demeanor, their generosity, and their understanding of the world, offered to me a vision of the possibility of correct, moral behavior. This understanding was and is, in perfection, a modern stoicism. As such, REDBELT offers the seemingly perfect encapsulation of the hero, and the world of martial arts, the perfect arena for its exploration. I was a wrestler in high school, did boxing, a little kung fu, but jiu-jitsu puts me back into my grappling background. The thing about jiu-jitsu is that one of the things you are studying to do is how to make it easier every time that you do it. It is also known as the old man's sport (slight laugh).
"This is not a martial arts film per se, yet it is merely a part of the tradition of the American fight film, where the lonely fighter deals with the 'machine,' and this is what differentiates fight films from action and samurai movies."
The "machine" in this film is the cutthroat reality and behind-the-scenes flummery and devious manipulations that go on in the real-life promotional world of mixed martial arts (MMA). It is similar to boxing and professional wrestling, but these guys are not actors and they use deadly martial arts techniques that can easily maim. Set in the west side of Los Angeles fight world, a world inhabited by bouncers, cagefighters, cops, and special forces types, REDBELT is the story of Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a jiu-jitsu teacher who has avoided the prize fighting circuit, choosing instead to pursue an honorable life by operating a self-defense studio with a samurai's code.
Terry and his wife struggle to keep the business running to make ends meet. An accident on a dark, rainy night at the Academy between an off-duty officer and a distraught lawyer puts in motion a series of events that will change Terry's life dramatically, introducing him to a world of promoters and the villainy of a two-faced movie star Chet Frank (amazingly portrayed by, of all people, Tim Allen). Terry is faced with compromising his principles of avoidance and not fighting for the sake of fighting in order to pay off his debts and somehow keep his honor and the honor of his art alive.
L-R; Jose Pablo Cantillo as Snowflake, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry, Max Martini as Joe Collins
"My experience has shown that in life in general the great artists and teachers are going to be found in the poorest places. I am also intrigued by the art and the people who practice it, especially the atmosphere and the camaraderie in my academy, and all the different people in all the different walks of life who are trying to learn this art, which is what the film is about. The traditional jiu-jitsu philosophy is about avoiding fights and the other thing that fascinates me as opposed to the striking forms, is that it is difficult to practice the striking forms full out, yet in jiu-jitsu there is no difference as to what you would do in the alley and on the mat?the only exception is that the move on the mat ends earlier."
In many American fight films, like ROCKY, RAGING BULL, KARATE KID, and one of the all time best, Kirk Douglas's THE CHAMPION, the ring represents that moment of glory, something that moves the character forward, as we, the audience, witnesses the character's strength as demonstrated by his accomplishments and his ability to overcome great odds to get to the ring. Yet in REDBELT, the opposite is true for Mike Terry: his strength lies in his avoidance of the ring, or in this case, the octagon.
Included in Terry's code of living is the adage that "Competition weakens the fighter." So, despite the big money temptations of competing on the pro mixed martial arts circuit, Terry stays true to his art and his moral convictions. Yet, over the course of the film, Terry is forced to question these convictions and eventually deal with breaking his code.
Randy Couture, a world-class professional MMA fighter who has a sports commentator role in the film, was not originally sold on its underlying theme. "Mixed martial arts is a mixed sport," Couture says, "and no matter what sports background you come from or what martial art you practice, MMA showed us that there is no one style of martial arts that encompasses everything that could potentially happen in a fight. And it is about fighting.
"So when I first read the script I wasn't sure I liked it," he adds. "It kind of went against what I spent the last ten years of my life doing, which is fighting, and the main character doesn't really like fighting?he thinks that fighting weakens the combatant, because of the rules and that sort of thing. It's sort of a traditional view of martial arts and how it applies. So it took me a little while to warm up to it and I kind of saw it as a kind of an American samurai story with one of the students committing suicide because of honor, and honor became involved. So once I put it in that perspective, it made a lot more sense to me."
REDBELT director David Mamet with MMA Champion Randy Couture
Mamet was happy with Couture's take, because as Mamet reveals REDBELT is simply a movie about a guy who does not train fighters to compete, he trains fighters to prevail. He trains them to come out of the alley rather than go into the ring, and yet he is ultimately forced to participate in a competition. "So in a sense it is a samurai film," Mamet contends, "because he has dedicated himself to a higher calling. If you're a priest and you dedicate yourself to a higher calling, you take a vow of poverty. That's what you do, and you know that if you become a priest you take a vow of poverty. So this guy is taking, in effect, a vow of poverty, and through certain things he's forced to give away that vow of poverty; not because he's become greedy, but because several things he did created a need in his life for money for his wife and the people he's responsible to and therefore he puts aside that vow of poverty and certain things happen to him.
"It is not a contradiction because Terry has actually brought in one of the main tenets of jiu-jitsu into the film, and that is if you are in a secure position, never give it up unless you are absolutely sure that you can improve it, never extend yourself into a position that you never can get out of. This is what happens to our hero, he gets taken off-balance by his exposure to fame and fortune and must somehow overcome that imbalance."
Although Chiwetel Ejiofor had practically never heard of jiu-jitsu, he trained with one of the Gracies in London for several months. Then, upon his arrival in Hollywood, he was in the gym 12 hours a day for one month under the watchful eyes of Renato Magno (Mamet's teacher), jiu-jitsu greats John and Rigan Machado, and wrestling standout Rico Chiapparelli, who, with the Machados, choreographed the fights.
As for the on screen fighters cast in the movie, Mamet brought in a wide array of athletes from both past and present, such as judo legend Gene LeBell, martial arts great Dan Inosanto (who also choreographed the knife fights), UFC Champion Couture, former lightweight boxing champ Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini, John Machado (one of the villain fighters), MMA contenders Enson Inoue and Frank Trigg, as well as Magno and Chiapparelli.
In many early American-made martial arts films, producers would blindly cast former kickboxing or karate tournament champions and competitors, and we saw how bad those films were. So was casting and hiring all these legitimate competition fighters a risky move?
"No," says Mamet. "We have here a category of people who have to do it when the pressure's on in front of an audience. 'Boom Boom' Mancini, for example, a champion of the world, is in the movie. And John Machado and Rico Chiapparelli are also champions. A lot of them are?because they do it when the pressure is on and it (acting) ought to be simple. And they don't bring a lot of bulls**t to the equation. It's much simpler to take a non-actor who might have a gift than to take an actor who's been to drama school."
John Machado as Augusto Silva, in the ring with Director David Mamet
With the sparkling success of Hong Kong-influenced fight choreography in American-made films, and all the energy and over-the-top action that has certainly left an indelible mark in the movie industry, the fight scenes in REDBELT could have become 'Hollywood-ized,' or too spectacular, just for the audience. But Mamet would have none of such talk, insisting that the authenticity of the fight sequences was paramount.
"It's important to me to be completely authentic, because that's the point of this movie," he says. "It's a movie about jiu-jitsu. So, since this is a sport and a science and an art that I feel very deeply about, out of respect to my teachers and to the art, which they've created, it's important that it's completely authentic. Nothing in this movie is not authentic. They're actual jiu-jitsu moves in the film, and not only are they actual jiu-jitsu moves, but they're also all the basic moves because those are the ones that are going to win a fight.
"The choreography is really due to Renato," continues Mamet. "We had six fights in the film and knew that each one had to be a little bit different. And Renato not only choreographed them but produced them. That is to say he was responsible for calling in the other guys to help with this and that, and the fight scenes are very realistic. That's what a fight looks like, and we have very different kinds of fights in the movie. So, what I'm trying to do throughout the movie is show fight by fight the different ways in which today in Hollywood these actual guys, most of whom live in Los Angeles, use jiu-jitsu. Who are the people who use it? The cops use it, the bouncers use it, the stunt men use it, and the Special Forces use it. So, there are different fights about how it would be applied in each of these situations."
Left to Right: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry, Dennis Keefer as Knife Fighter in Bar and Tim Allen as Chet Frank
Mamet assures me that except for one shot done by a stunt man, no doubles were used in the fight scenes by any actor throughout the whole film and nobody was injured.
If anyone has any doubts as to Mamet's love and passion for martial arts, here are his final thoughts. "I would like to say that I trust and hope that the film treats the martial arts with the utmost respect," Mamet whole-heartedly assures me, "and its practitioners with respect. I truly hope that is communicated with the film and if it is not then the fault is mine and I apologize."
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Written by Dr. Craig Reid for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM