It's a well-known fact that, sooner or later, every disreputable genre will get artsyfartsified. Jaws did it for monster movies. Crouching Tiger did it for chopsocky. Silence of the Lambs did it for serial killer flicks. And now Redbelt is here to do it for one of the most disreputable genres of all: the Chuck Norris movie.
See, back when he was still blond and beardless, Chuck was always playing these retired martial artists who just wanted to hang back and not have to kick motherfuckers in the neck anymore. He used to be in the army, but now he runs a little dojo or something, nothing extravagant, but enough for him and the occasional ladyfriend. Somewhere along the way, he gets into a random bar fight to let you know that he could still kick ass if he wanted to. He just prefers not to. Then somebody asks for his help, and he tries not to get involved, but sooner or later, some dumb fuck pushes him too far and he has to break his feet of fury out of mothballs. This movie's been made roughly 700 million times, both with and without Chuck, and while it's awesome, it's not the kind of story that you ever really believe in; it's just a workable formula for mindless action. But Redbelt takes that exact formula—even down to the bar fight—and breaks your goddamn heart with it.
This is a great movie, and you know what? Even though respected playwright David Mamet wrote and directed this thing, I'm going to go ahead and take full credit for its existence. Long-time Majestykles will no doubt remember my review of the not-so-hot kung-fu flick Chinese Hercules in which I lamented that the so-called "hero" spent the whole movie bellyaching about how he didn't want to kick ass anymore. "Nobody wants to watch some dude wrestle with his demons and become a more spiritual person," I sagely declared. "We want to watch him get righteously pissed off and slaughter a whole mess of deserving scum." I then went on to say, "I kind of hope that someday somebody proves me wrong and makes a movie where, when the hero finally stops blubbering and learns to kill again, we think, 'Aw, that's too bad.'" Well, I guess David Mamet has been reading my blog on the sly, because Redbelt is that movie. I assume the check is in the mail.
Here's the deal: Chiwetel Ejiofor plays this badass jujitsu expert named Mike Terry who runs a little storefront dojo in L.A. He has a code of honor that makes sense to him and seems like the correct way to live his life, but the rest of the world doesn't agree. He's always broke, so everybody's always trying to get him to fight competitively, but he knows that's not the right way to use his skills. He just wants to teach his students, hang out with his hot Brazilian wife, and basically be the most decent and noble human being who has ever walked the earth.
That's pretty much what this movie is about: maintaining your personal code of ethics when the entire world wants you to sell out. The plot is too goddamned complicated to explain, but it involves all of these seemingly minor incidents adding up to a vast conspiracy to get Mike to fight in this UFC-style tournament. And I wouldn't have thought it was possible, but when that tournament comes up, I found myself wishing that Mike didn't have to fight in it. Crazy, right? The tournament is where the kung-fu happens, and I still wished that Mike could just go back to his dojo and teach a few whitebelts some basic self-defense maneuvers. The tournament is such a crass bastardization of everything that Mike believes in that it actually broke my heart to see him lower himself to that level. Redbelt did the impossible: It made me anti-asskicking.
A lot of that is on Ejiofor himself. I don't know how well known he is, but he's one of my favorite actors working today. He can play villains (Serenity), heroes (this movie), and sidekicks (Inside Man) with equal conviction, and he has a decency and grace that is second to none. I honestly believe that if the world wasn't so fucking racist this guy could play Superman—he's that fucking deep-down noble. Now, a lot of people don't like a 100% good character. They need shades of gray to be able to relate. It's the classic Superman vs. Batman debate. I can appreciate that (nine times out of ten I'll go with Bats over Supes), but I also love a character who doesn't have a dark side. Someone who either by nature or by conscious choice will always do the right thing, no matter how much it hurts. He refuses to act out of pettiness, to compromise his principles, to deny whatever help he can give to whomever needs it. Because, believe it or not, that's the person I want to be. I want to be the goddamn hero. But I am weak and I am selfish, and though I have my moments of courage and honor (like we all do), in the end, I am just as flawed as anyone else. I'm no hero. I'm just a guy trying to get along. That's why I'm a sucker for someone who represents the best of what I wish I could be. I wish I could be that humble, that loyal, that brave, that selfless. I don't know what it says about me, but I envy a martyr.
(Did I mention that I was raised Catholic?)
Anyway, Redbelt is definitely a portrait of a hero, but it's also an exploration of how much being a hero would suck. While everyone can agree with Mike's code of honor in theory, in reality, it would be a major pain in the ass. In the movie, he's always helping out everyone except himself. Some neurotic lawyer lady wanders into his dojo off the street and accidentally busts his window, and he lets her go without asking her to pay for it. After all, she was clearly not in control of her actions. Besides, she was a guest in his dojo. It would be wrong to ask her for money. Of course, his wife just wants to know how the hell they're going to replace the window when they can't even pay the goddamn rent. Redbelt asks the question: When does being honorable amount to selfishness? Is it not more honorable to compromise and be able to feed your family than to stay pure and have them starve? Mike's noble intentions and strict moral code may lead to enlightenment on the mountaintop, but down here on the ground with the rest of us mortals, it leads everyone around him to pain and suffering.
In the end, the movie does glorify Mike's code, but it's careful to show the cost, both to himself and those around him. But there are pluses and minuses in everything, and his example leads others to find strength within themselves they never knew they had. I guess the moral of the story is: Everyone loves a hero. Just don't marry one.
Anyway, let's talk about the fights, because none of this would matter if they didn't deliver. There are only two major fight sequences in the movie, but they're pretty awesome. The first is that bar fight I was talking about. Tim Allen plays this asshole movie star who goes out on the town without his bodyguards because he wants to get into a fight for research. Problem is, he's a pussy, so Mike has to save him. What follows is two minutes of seemingly effortless jujitsu, in which Mike disables four or five men without ever throwing a punch. In Japanese, "jujitsu" translates as "the gentle way," and while I wouldn't go that far (I don't see how you can gently snap someone's wrist), it's more about using your opponent's aggression against him than it is about being aggressive yourself. You can't meet force with force; you can only embrace it or deflect it. The catchphrase of the movie is "There is nothing you can't escape," and that's what Mike's fighting style and his life are all about. It's about maintaining your dignity and your honor even when you're facedown on the mat, because if you remember what you stand for, you will eventually find a way to get up again. It's as clichéd a message as there is, one parroted by every cheesy power ballad ever recorded, and yet there are moments in this movie that damn near made me cry. It just goes to show that there are no outdated themes, just outdated modes of expressing them.
I just realized that not only is Redbelt a classy version of a Chuck Norris movie, it's also a classy version of an inspirational sports movie. It's got all of the elements: Pure-hearted hero denies worldly temptations offered by corrupt society and emerges victorious from climactic tournament. This is pretty much the plot of Rad, only with a different sport and better haircuts. And just like Rad, the climax is a little rushed and a lot far-fetched (it's one of those endings where somebody gets rewarded for doing something that would get you or me imprisoned), but it packs a punch. And it does it without ever throwing one.