Review by Jack Foley
CHIWETEL Ejiofor is undoubtedly one of Britain’s most exciting actors. Whether its winning rave reviews for his West End portrayal of Othello, or scene stealing from Denzel Washington in both Inside Man and American Gangster, he is a truly versatile performer.
Acclaimed playwright David Mamet has noticed this and duly rewarded Ejiofor with the central role in his latest piece, Redbelt, a meditation on honour set within the world of mixed martial arts (which includes jiu-jitsu, wrestling, boxing and kick-boxing) that’s designed to emulate the classic sports movies of the genre such as Raging Bull and On The Waterfront.
Gulf War veteran Mike Terry (Ejiofor) is a fiercely loyal jiu-jitsu teacher who runs a struggling academy in LA’s Westside with his ambitious Brazilian wife (Alice Braga). A solution to their cash woes appears to come from a chance encounter with noted screen actor Chet Frank (Tim Allen), who asks Terry to serve as a consultant on his next movie after Terry steps in to save him in a bar fight.
But the offer soon proves false, as Terry finds his ideas exploited for Chet’s own personal gain and a prior incident involving an unstable lawyer (Emily Mortimer) and a volatile cop threatens to bring his business crumbling down around him. Can a martial arts tournament attended by some of the fighting world’s greatest names provide him with a way out?
Mamet, of course, is no stranger to weaving complex tales around simple themes and here delivers another master-class in storytelling that takes in everything from the movies and big business sports deals, to loyalty and the capacity to remain true to one’s own values.
At the centre of it all stands Ejiofor’s Terry, a man who lives by a strict code of honour that’s frequently at odds with the world around him, and which is sorely put to the test by the events that subsequently unfold.
In lesser hands, Terry could have appeared a cumbersome, even painfully naive character, yet Ejiofor imbues him with a tremendous underdog spirit that’s totally worth rooting for come the long-awaited final showdown.
Mamet, for his part, refrains from too many “fight movie” clichés, opting instead to expose the ruthless machinations of big business, as well as its effects upon the individual, and thereby ensuring that the final moments carry a genuinely hard-fought emotional resonance.
He also draws strong supporting performances from a notable ensemble cast, with Tim Allen quietly impressing in a rare departure from his family-orientated movies, and Emily Mortimer also doing well as Terry’s unlikely ally.
But it’s Ejiofor who rightfully deserves the biggest plaudits for the way in which he brings tremendous depth and an imposing physical presence to this most intriguing of characters.
Redbelt is therefore a richly absorbing movie that deserves to sit comfortably alongside the movies it seeks to emulate. It will undoubtedly be a movie that gets better with the passing of time.
Running time: 99mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: February 2, 2009