MOVIE REVIEW of RED BELT: By Gumby of www.onthemat.com
As an instructor, you come to realize that you cannot truly understand something until you have the ability to explain it someone else. In this way Red Belt, the new movie from Dave Mamet, is his attempt to explain to the masses what Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is.
A word of warning however: those of you expecting the Enter the Dragon or Karate Kid to spark a revolution in Jiu Jitsu enrollment, Red Belt is not that movie. Red Belt is essentially a drama with large amount of the back and forth dialogue Mamet is known for. The main theme is not so much Jiu Jitsu itself in that Jiu Jitsu is as much a metaphor for one man’s value system that not necessarily compatible with the world of today about him.
Since we here at OntheMat rarely do movie reviews, we feel compelled to talk about this film on two levels, first and foremost on how successful of a movie this is and secondly if the portrayal of Jiu Jitsu rings as authentic.
Knowing what I was getting into definitely helped my enjoyment of the movie; people I attended with who were expecting a more straight forward action picture were bound to be disappointed. There are certainly some intense action sequences but this is hardly the focal point of the movie.
The story centers around instructor owner Mike Terry (a great performance by Chiwetel Eliofor), a man dedicated to Jiu Jitsu and the concepts of old world principles and honor. While he has a handful of loyal students and is content with his program, he’s also barely making rent on his studio. Tradition versus commercialization is certainly a theme that can resonate with many activities, but it will particularly hit home with an audience of Jiu Jitsu enthusiasts. A chance encounter a shaky Laura Black and an accidental gunshot through the academy window sets off a series of events that will take Mike through the seedier elements of Hollywood and the world of Mixed Martial Arts, which he initially disdains. It’s an enjoyable ride, filled with a few surprising plot twists I won’t give away here culminating in a MMA tournament that doesn’t exactly go as everyone would have expected. The ending is bound to controversial from a few different perspectives, but it invites the viewer to make several conclusions on their own.
Throughout the movie Mamet uses his opportunities to showcase Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, most obviously in the action sequences, but more often in the teachings and the words of wisdom from Mike Terry. I can see instructors and students alike uttering lines like “there’s always an escape” and “I teach people to prevail, not to win” across academies. As a vehicle to promote Jiu Jitsu it may not necessarily excite the uninformed view into wanted to sign up with a local academy, but it will certainly give them a lot to think about and hopefully an appreciation of the art. People well versed in Jiu Jitsu may have a few new insights because of Red Belt as well.
The authenticity of the Jiu Jitsu in Red belt is high, and fans of the art will certainly enjoy recognizing many people who worked on the film. Randy Couture has a fairly substantial speaking role . John Machado has a big role in this movie as well (fair to mention he had a starring role in his own movie, Brazilian Brawl which is somewhat of a cult classic among BJJ affecdionados). A major fight scene takes place Renato Magno (who also happens to be Mamet’s instructor) and Ricco Chipparelli. Ed O’ Neil, the actor who introduced Mamet to Jiu Jitsu and now a black belt himself, has a small walk on role as well. The legendary Dan Inosanto portrays the Grandmaster.
The action sequences showcase a number of popular moves, although sometimes because of the cinematic choices and direction the action is a bit hard to follow. It is nice that Mamet is able to showcase a few different aspects of Jiu Jitsu, including academy training, sport/sport fighting and self defense, the last one showcasing some version of stick fighting in addition to Jiu Jitsu. The action is for the most part believable and the final sequences are very exciting. A few points do require a bit of a suspension of disbelief; it’s a little difficult to believe that the California Athletic Commission would sanction the type of handicapping of bouts that Red Belt suggests (and in an interview Mamer does declare this was a work of Hollywood fiction, however I can vividly remember having train with one or both hands tied in my belt at times.)
In the end this Red Belt is an entertaining film and it portray Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in a positive light, so it’s easy to recommend this film. Ultimately, this movie is about a modern day samurai and sticking to one’s principles in a corrupted world and I think (as Jiu Jitsu Jitsu students and instructors ourselves) we can certainly relate to the main character of Mike Terry.
Listen to the Fightworks Podcast Interview with Dave Mamet!