Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Redbelt: David Mamet uses martial arts to map "real world LA" to the movies


David Mamet is known for movies about treachery and schemes of deceit, perhaps most of all his 1998 black comedy “The Spanish Prisoner” about a variation of the corporate “Nigerian scam” setup with Steve Martin and Ben Gazarra.

His recent hit is a curious effort “Redbelt” that is both big and little at the same time. Shot in full 2.35 : 1 and on the surface about jiu-jitsu and martial arts, with a climactic fight (of sorts) so you might expect this movie to come from Sony’s Screen Gems (or maybe Tri-Star) rather than the boutique division (Sony Pictures Classics) mostly used with foreign films. Sony Pictures Classics even seems to have functioned as a "production company" (unusual for this kind of distributor). (The other “obvious” studio for this movie, given its “style”, could have been Lionsgate, or maybe even Roadside Attractions, if Sony aka Columbia hadn’t wanted it first.) Actually, the movie integrates almost every conceivable style and idea in its 99 minutes, bring in complex ideas about police integrity, sports fixing, copyright law, the movie business, and personal integrity, in a sequence of plot developments that sound like they would be contrived and half-baked but actually work as you watch the movie. This is a movie with more than a beginning, middle and end.

I had a friend in graduate school (who called himself “The Cave”) who was very proud of his black belt. We think of martial arts as cleaner than wrestling and generally involving less actual physical contact. Perhaps so, but this movie takes martial arts into darker corners.

Michael Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, of Nigerian descent but raised in the UK and performing here with totally neutral voice accent) and his wife ((Alice Braga, from Brazil) run a struggling martial arts studio in south LA. Pretty soon there are some bizarre and somewhat coincidental calamties. These really do happen in life, I guess (they did to me with substitute teaching). Here, a cop almost gets shot by Mrs. Terry and he agrees to change history if the couple will get involved in a crazy scheme involving a pawned watch. Okay, the cop is in trouble. Soon this leads to the possibility of Terry becoming an assistant producer to an indie film about martial arts, involving a Brazilian tournament that is rigged with a certain scheme involving drawing colored gemstones. It’s hard to follow the connections, that seem dream-like – but I can say that I’ve concocted screenplays with plot chain reaction crashes like this and somewhat comparable levels of deception (maybe Mamet could direct my movie). What’s really interesting is when the lawyers get involved – although Mamet truncates the dialogue before we can completely understand the goings-on. (Perhaps there will be some deleted scenes on the DVD that will explain some of this more.) There is a suggestion that the purported movie would involve copyright infringement because the “three gems” have been used before in Brazil – but ideas can’t be copyrighted, right? I lost this, here; it didn’t quite track to my own understanding of copyright law (odd in the movies, since the whole industry is so sensitive and investor-paranoid about copyright infringement – in fact, the scene had me wondering even about the industry’s notorious “third party rule” for new scripts and even loglines). For a moment, I wondered if Mamet wanted to recreate the notorious "tortious interference" boardroom scene in "The Insider" (about the tobacco litigation). Then it gets more complicated. The movie-to-be becomes a real-life fight to be, and a climax for the film, and a test of Terry’s moral character. The challenge is to keep his integrity, not just keep his jiu-jitsu studio.

There is almost a touch of Altman -- of "The Player" -- in this movie.

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