Redelt: David Mamet’s Tale, Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Emily Mortimer

Set in the west-side of Los Angeles fight b, a world inhabited by bouncers, cage fighters, cops and special forces types, “Redbelt” is the story of Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Jiu-Jitsu teacher who has avoided the prize fighting circuit, choosing instead to pursue an honorable life by operating a self-defense studio with a samurai’s code.

Terry and his wife Sondra (Alice Braga), struggle to keep the business running to make ends meet. An accident on a dark, rainy night at the Academy between an off duty officer (Max Martini) and a distraught lawyer () puts in motion a series of events that will change Terry’s life dramatically introducing him to a world of promoters (Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna) and movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen). Faced with this, in order to pay off his debts and regain his honor, Terry must step into the ring for the first time in his life.

Director Mamet’s Statement

I spent five years training with a great jiu-jitsu master, Renato Magno, and associating with his colleagues and cousins, the Machados and the Gracies. They, in their demeanor, their generosity, and their understanding of the world, offered to me, and their other students, a vision of the possibility of correct, moral behavior in all circumstances. This understanding was and is, in perfection, a modern stoicism. As such, it seemed the perfect encapsulation of the hero, and the world of martial arts, the perfect arena for its exploration.

Timeless Themes

Mamet has once again strayed from the pack to create the film “Redbelt,” a project which he makes great pains to point out is “not a martial arts movie.” Instead, “Redbelt” takes a look at timeless themes such as honor and respect through the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and the fast-growing sport of mixed martial arts–two subjects that have never been featured in a major film before.

But this is not a case of cashing in on the latest craze in the sports world; Mamet’s love and respect of jiu-jitsu goes back five years, when the former high school wrestler, boxer, and kung fu practitioner began studying Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Los Angeles with Renato Magno, a Black Belt and the fight choreographer on Redbelt. So what is the essence of this martial art, which originated in Japan and which was perfected in Brazil

Practical Philosophy

“Jiu-Jitsu is a martial art just as boxing is a martial art and savate is a martial art,” said Mamet. “The main principal of Jiu-Jitsu is that understanding will defeat strength. And although it’s philosophical, it’s really extraordinarily practical. Don’t use more force than you need to; knowledge will conquer force. If you take two forces that oppose each other, one of them is wasting force, so eventually one of them is going to run out of steam. If you’ve got a stronger guy and a weaker guy and the weaker guy can exhaust the stronger guy, the guy runs out of steam, the weaker guy can now bring his skills to bear. It’s like (John) Machado was saying to me, “Jiu-Jitsu doesn’t make you punch proof. What it does is it gives you the opportunity potentially at the last moment to turn the fight around.”

Currently a purple belt in Jiu-Jitsu, Mamet was immediately taken in by the techniques and philosophies of the art, and when he is on the mat, nothing else matters for him. “He’s terrifying,” said Chiwetel Ejiofor, the star of Redbelt. “He gets a look in his eye like he’s not messing around and then he just goes for it. I saw him throw down, and he’s strong and really skilled at it.” And even more than learning the nuts and bolts, Mamet was fascinated by the culture and people around Jiu-Jitsu, inspiring him to document what he had seen and learned.

“I decided fairly early in my experience with Jiu-Jitsu that the world was fascinating, because it was cut across many different strata of society,” he said. “The guys you train with, some of them would be cops, some of them would be bouncers, some of them would be Navy SEALs or SWAT guys. Some of them would be stuntmen and some of us would just be regular guys who wanted to learn how to defend ourselves. I was inspired because I wanted to write a story about these guys, I wanted to write a story about these fighters, but it took me a while to figure out exactly what that story was.” Eventually, Mamet began writing, and as fate would have it, the story ended up close to home in Hollywood, with the center of the action always coming back to the Jiu-Jitsu Academy owned by main character Mike Terry (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor).

“There’s a lot of cross-pollenization in Hollywood between the martial arts and the movie business. The movie business has films that involve fighting in them and there are stunt people doing the stunts, almost all of whom study mixed martial arts for various reasons. Also, because there are movie stars, they need people to protect them, so they have bouncers and security agents and all of that stuff. And so Redbelt is the story about these different people meeting through the academy. So it wasn’t so much that I decided to set it in Hollywood, but that I was looking at the culture of martial arts in Hollywood and writing about it.”

Influencing Mamet

While writing, two distinct influences colored Mamet’s work, and they were far from typical. “One is the samurai film, about the hero with no name, popularized by Clint Eastwood,” said Mamet. “But really what that film is, is that spaghetti western, is Sanjuro Yojimbo, he’s the fellow, the lonely warrior that was the film that Akira Kurosawa made many, many times. And the other strand is the American fight film, which is a film noir. A film like the original “Night and the City,” or “The Harder They Fall,” or “The Set-up,” or “Champion,” or “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” or the Jake La Motta story, which is called “Raging Bull.”

At the core of Redbelt though, was lead character Mike Terry, a Gulf War veteran who owned and operated a financially struggling Jiu-Jitsu school, but who also lived by a code of honor that he passed down to his students.

“Mike Terry is a guy who is sort of an uncomplicated character in many ways, which doesn’t mean that he’s simple,” said Ejiofor. “He has an existence that makes sense to him in Los Angeles as a trainer at his academy. He teaches Jiu-Jitsu incredibly seriously and it’s based both on his own experience and knowledge and understanding, and also on his belief in the philosophies of Jiu-Jitsu. He attempts to apply those things to his life, even when the situation seems like it’s impossible. Obviously a situation like that kind of conspires within the affluent surroundings of Los Angeles life.”

Included in Terry’s code of living was the adage that, “Competition weakens the fighter.” So, despite the big money temptations of competing on the pro mixed martial arts circuit, Terry stayed true to his art and his moral convictions. Yet over the course of the film, Terry will be forced to question these convictions and eventually deal with breaking his code.

“The movie is about a guy who doesn’t train fighters to compete, but he trains fighters, he says, to prevail, and he trains them to come out of the alley rather than in the ring and he is forced to participate in a competition. So, in a sense it’s a samurai film because he has dedicated himself to a higher calling. If you’re a priest and you dedicate yourself to a higher calling, you take a vow of poverty. That’s what you do, and you know that if you become a priest you take a vow of poverty. So this guy is taking, in effect, a vow of poverty, and through certain things he’s forced to give away that vow of poverty; not because he’s become greedy, but because several things he did created a need in his life for money for his wife and the people he’s responsible to and therefore he puts aside that vow of poverty and certain things happen to him.”

There was just one thing missing, and soon Mamet found the piece that completed the puzzle for his story. “This is a script that was always kind of looking for the hook, the thing that would make the script really make sense,” said Producer Chrisann Verges. “And at the moment that Mamet came up with the idea of the three balls and choosing what your handicap will be, it all came around to him.”

Three Balls

In Mamet’s story, Terry engages in a ritual in his gym, which he learned from his Jiu-Jitsu master (Dan Inosanto). Three balls–one black, two white–are placed in a bowl. Before a fight, the combatants reach into the bowl and pull a ball out. If it is white, the fighter will engage in a normal fight with all limbs. If a black ball is pulled out, the fighter will have to fight with a handicap, such as having one hand tied up.

This ritual plays a key role throughout the film, and it tied up all the loose ends for Mamet, who finished the script for Redbelt and then proceeded on the adventure to get the film made. It wasn’t going to be easy though. “At that point,” recalls Ms. Verges, “pretty much no one was interested in doing a movie about mixed martial arts.”

Mixed Martial Arts

In Hollywood, boxing, karate, and kung fu action movies have enjoyed great mainstream success. Mixed martial arts, a sport that didn’t launch in the United States until the first Ultimate Fighting Championship show in 1993 had never seen a major motion picture use it as a backdrop. And the industry, much like mainstream America until the last few years, was leery of this sport, which combined jiu-jitsu, wrestling, boxing, and kickboxing in one exciting event.

“Mixed martial arts is just that, it’s a mixed sport,” said Randy Couture (Dylan Flynn), a three-time heavyweight and two-time light heavyweight champion in the UFC and a former Olympic alternate in wrestling. “And no matter what sports background you come from or what martial art you practiced, this sport, and jiu-jitsu in particular, showed us that there is no one style of martial arts that encompasses everything that could potentially happen in a fight. So the jiu-jitsu practitioner had to learn kickboxing and had to learn some Muay Thai and had to learn some wrestling skills to deal with athletes that came from those particular backgrounds. Me, coming from a wrestling background, I had to learn the striking and I had to learn some jiu-jitsu, and it becomes a true mixed sport, where you have to learn all the different pieces to be a well rounded fighter. If you neglect one of those areas, somebody’s probably going to point that out to you, and in pretty quick fashion.”

As the sport became regulated in the early part of the millennium, got back on cable television and secured a reality series entitled “The Ultimate Fighter,” fans came to the sport in droves, and soon, UFC events were packing arenas outselling boxing events on pay-per-view on a consistent basis. Why It was real. “I often liken it to kinetic chess,” said Couture. “And I think that people, once they kind of get over their initial shock over the sport and kind of tune into the tactics and the technique and the discipline and all the things that the guys do to be complete fighters, as well as the many dimensions to this sport, it attracts a lot of fans. People get hooked on it.”

One of those people was David Mamet.

“It’s more interesting, because there are more possibilities,” Mamet said. “And after you’ve watched mixed martial arts, especially if you understand something of any of the various techniques, watching boxing is generally like watching paint dry. Boxing’s a standup game. The whole point of boxing is to render your guy unconscious, give him a concussion so he blacks out and falls to the canvas, and knock him out. So that’s more or less the only thing that can happen, or the referee can step in and award the fight on points. But in mixed martial arts, a lot of things can happen. You can win on points, the opponent can pass out or he can do something which you don’t find in boxing, which is he can tap out. Which is to say that a person can be put in a position whereby if his opponent applies a little bit more pressure, the victim is either gonna pass out or break something. And so the fellow who’s getting beaten can simply say, ‘Tap, you win.’ And he can do that because he’s being punched, because he’s exhausted, because he’s put in a choke hold, he’s being chocked out or because something is about to break.”

So it was no surprise that the world of professional mixed martial arts became a big part of “Redbelt.” The question was, who would step up to get behind the film. That question was soon answered by Sony Classics’ Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, who greenlighted the film. Five weeks later, pre-production on Redbelt began.