The 365 Best Films of the 2000s

Heroes of the Zeroes: Redbelt

Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009.

Rated R

“Redbelt” threatened to be David Mamet’s most vainglorious misfire since forcing the (at best) dinner-theater talent of wife Rebecca Pidgeon into his films. A purple belt in the martial art of jiu-jitsu, Mamet could’ve slobbered out a superficial valentine to exotic culture.

Thankfully, Mamet sees cognitive cons all around him, and for-cash combat is an emotional shell game of the sort that has long fascinated and fueled him. A samurai noir dumped in summer 2008, “Redbelt” offered an eloquent, profane eulogy for the purity of discipline in the face of profit.

Can Chiwetel Ejiofor please get a piece of Denzel Washington’s meaty roles for black leading men? Never less than magnetic, Ejiofor can and has acted damn near every type of part and one-third of his 19 Zeroes movies reside on this list.

He’s immediately engaging as jiu-jitsu instructor Mike Terry, whose peaceful ethos emphasizes upper hands over uppercuts: Know the escape, let the other guy get tired, learn not to fight but prevail. High on principle and low on profit, Mike’s honor is tested after he befriends an action star (Tim Allen) he aided in a bar brawl and his ideology is exploited in a labyrinthine mixed martial-arts scheme.

Pidgeon excepted, Mamet’s cast — including Alice Braga, Joe Mantegna, Emily Mortimer and David Paymer — is perfectly suited to his reedy prose.

Raw, rugged and racing toward an unpredictably unceremonious finale, “Redbelt” offered yet more reasons to bow to Mamet as a sensei of duplicitous twists and devilish turns of phrase.

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14 Responses to “Heroes of the Zeroes: Redbelt”

  1. […] peppers the shenanigans with a chorus of country folks and priceless small-town lore. And again excepting the stilted, monotonous Pidgeon, the ensemble cast is uniformly […]

  2. Sam Watermeier says:

    Ha! I’d like to hear Clint Eastwood do a British accent.

  3. Nick Rogers says:

    And speaking again to the Broccolis’ dementia, I give you this AICN article:

  4. Nick Rogers says:

    I think Crouse, as some actors tend to do, parroted what she thought Mamet-speak should sound like rather than interpreting how their character might vocalize it. In the case of Pidgeon, it’s both the repeat-offense factor and the idea that she has little acting talent to begin with. She does have a decent singing voice, though.

  5. Sam Watermeier says:

    You think she’s worse than Lindsay Crouse? I thought Crouse was quite stiff and awkward in Mamet’s film debut, "House of Games." But then again, maybe that was just an effect of the Mametian dialogue like "Let’s talk turkey, mister."

  6. Nick Rogers says:

    SPOILER I guess that, for me, the idea that Mamet often leaves his leads in the lurch left me wondering whether Mike would get that moment of honor or not. END SPOILER

    One last note on "Redbelt": At least Mamet marginalized Rebecca Pidgeon in this film. I rewatched "State and Main" for the 365 list recently, and you can feel her dead eyes draining the vitality and pace every time she saunters onscreen. Judd Apatow can get away with casting Leslie Mann because she’s got timing and talent (although "Funny People" seemed the natural end of that line). Mamet and Pidgeon is marital nepotism at its worst.

  7. Nick Rogers says:

    Well, during the six-year lull after "Licence to Kill" when the Bond franchise was in tatters, there were rumors of, yes, Eddie Murphy assuming the role, or even switching the sex and having Sharon Stone play the part. So don’t think the Broccolis haven’t considered wild (read stupid) alternatives. Something tells me that with the current financial crisis at MGM, it will be, at best, 2013 before we see another Bond film in theaters. By the time that would film in 2012, Craig would be 44. He might have one more in him after that for 2015. By then, he’ll be 47 and Ejiofor will be 41. Ejiofor’s as good a chap as any to get a shot.

    Sam, you will recognize this, then, as the sort of speculative success calculation that often accompanies a man-crush.

  8. Joe Shearer says:

    Wow, Sam. That would piss off a lot of people, but would make perfect sense. He’d be a good Bond, too. Do me a favor and make this happen, but only after Daniel Craig is done with Bond, because he’s pretty damn awesome himself.

  9. Sam Watermeier says:

    Also, I have to admit that I too have a mancrush on Chiwetel Ejiofor. My brother had a crazy-cool idea: Ejiofor as Bond. James Bond. The Bond of the Obama era!

  10. Sam Watermeier says:

    That’s true, good points. SPOILER: I was mostly talking about when he receives the redbelt at the end. One might say it’s a corny or predictable moment (you could see it coming from the moment that ju-jitsu master is introduced), but I thought it was refreshing to see David Mamet show some emotion on his sleeve. You’re right, though, it remains to be seen whether he will do anything substantial with that newfound pride.

  11. Nick Rogers says:

    Sam: To respond, I have to discuss spoilers, but I’ll tag them as such. I didn’t say the finale was unpredictable, but unpredictably unceremonious in that SPOILER SPOILER Mike doesn’t buck all odds to lay everyone out in the tournament as he would in every other film with that plot up to that point. Mike retains his honor and restores his sensei’s good name, but not in a way that triumphs over the crooked system that’s rigged the fight to start with. I have a hard time believing Mike will do anything after the fadeout besides go back to his dojo and scrape out a living with Emily Mortimer. And, yes, any ending that sees the hero walk off with Emily Mortimer is probably a happy ending. Even for grizzled old Mamet, it would have been unswervingly cruel to leave Mike at absolute zero. He’s one of Mamet’s few protagonists who doesn’t compromise himself or give into obsession to, in a way, receive exactly the rotten comeuppance he/she deserves. END SPOILER END SPOILER

  12. Sam Watermeier says:

    I’d argue that it actually has a very predictable ending, especially evident in the closing shot. However, the way it sneaks up on you emotionally despite its predictability is indeed a real surprise, especially from someone as typically hardened and unsentimental as Mamet. (I tried to stay vague here to avoid spoilers).

  13. Nick Rogers says:

    While I don’t substitute hearts for the many hearts in his name, I do have a man-crush on Mr. Ejiofor – which began with "Four Brothers" and solidified with "Redbelt." I’d be happy to write that column if it can wait several weeks or so.

  14. Joe Shearer says:

    There WILL be a Chiwetel Ejiofor "That Guy" column, and he’s one of the least-deserving "That Guys," considering he has all the makings of a big-time movie star, not the least of which is talent.