David Mamet’s Redbelt: Misfire Or Masterpiece?

Like most unique artists, David Mamet is a divisive figure. Swarms of people find his dialogue crackling, singular and uniquely subtextual; others find it pretentious and affected. Some audiences find his characters dynamic and complex; others find them to be simplistic, misogynistic mouthpieces. But we can all agree on this: the guy can write. As both a hired gun and an auteur, he has written iconic roles on stage and screen for some of the biggest leading men in history: Al Pacino, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, William H. Macy, Steve Martin, Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin, Anthony Hopkins, the list goes on.

But perhaps his most contested, misunderstood–and dare I say, most interesting–work is 2008’s Redbelt, which starred a then little-known Chiwetel Ejiofor and an eclectic supporting cast including Emily Mortimer, Alice Braga, and Tim Allen playing against type . Referred to at the time as “a cerebral martial arts potboiler” by LA Times staff writer Chris Lee, it’s certainly not Mamet’s best film; in fact, some may consider it his most underwhelming. But there’s a hypnotic power to it and damn if it isn’t interesting.

That insipidly assembled trailer notwithstanding, Redbelt is a fascinating film because it offers David Mamet at his seemingly most simplistic and archetypal…and yet it’s a film that conveys narrative on myriad levels, via a complex system, communicating to us and generating meaning through the interaction of signs and points of thematic opposition that are packaged within a precise syntagmatic structure.

Redbelt is particularly fascinating through the lens of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation. Let’s take a look.

Key to deciphering the signs, significations, thematic underpinnings and points of opposition in any narrative work or system is recognizing what the applicable codes are. Codes serve as rules of interpretation; they tell the audience what signs mean. In Redbelt, the codes are largely non-diegetic in nature. That is, they derive not from the world of the film itself, but from the film’s place when viewed through the lens of previously established genres and archetypes.

Redbelt is an amalgam of film noir, the Western, and samurai and American fight films. It exudes a clear reverence for these types of films and, at the risk of getting film school-y, draws consciously from the mise-en-scénes and narrative conventions inherent in them. Therefore, to digest Redbelt–to fully “get” what Mamet is doing–it’s necessary to first recognize this well of signs and conventions it feeds from.

Generally speaking, film noirs deal with darkness and the effect of corruption on the human soul and often feature protagonists with mysterious, haunted pasts and antagonists who are consumed by greed and the desire for self-aggrandizement.

Westerns—and especially revisionist Westerns—deal with the struggle to uphold law and order in an untamed frontier and often feature characters who have become anachronistic, cowboys who find that their way of life is coming to an end and that their personal values are incompatible with those of the developing world around them.

Samurai and American fight films are concerned principally with the notion of personal honor and typically feature characters whose supreme sense of morality and devotion to ethical decency result in tremendous suffering and social alienation—even from those whom they care deeply about.

All of those archetypes, conventions and tropes apply to and illuminate Redbelt, and in fact they’re all present in the characterization of the film’s protagonist, who is a Cowboy/Samurai/Man With A Past. Mike Terry is an American jujitsu master with a haunted past (is there any other kind?) who runs a dojo and whose peaceful world and personal sense of integrity is attacked and almost destroyed by twists of fate and a series of encounters with a diverse set of dishonorable individuals who are all motivated by greed.

What is significant about Redbelt is that it takes all of these comfortably familiar elements and places them in a unique world that involves Brazilian jujitsu and mixed martial arts and Hollywood royalty. Indeed, the two main points of opposition in the film are (1) personal honor and spiritual purity versus material success and comfort and (2) the interaction and clashing between divergent cultures and classes in a cross-pollinated, globalized 21st century world.

Both of these oppositions are introduced in the opening sequence of the film, which begins with roughly-drawn red lettering over a black background, accompanied by the loud beat of Japanese taiko drums on the soundtrack. The color red suggests passion, blood and intensity. The eruptive drumbeats convey a driving force dripping with pounding momentum—and the fact that the drums are Japanese is hardly coincidental, as jujitsu originated in Japan (though the film itself deals more specifically with Brazilian jujitsu and mixed martial arts). Individually and collectively, these elements tell us that we are about to enter a primal, volatile, specialized and deeply masculine world.

The first scene of the film consists of Mike Terry teaching a class in his dojo, instructing his prized policeman student Joe Collins as he fights with another man. Terry has Joe’s hands tied together because, using Terry’s unique training method, he drew a black handicap marble (as opposed to a white marble, which is a pass). This is Terry’s unique training method that he employs, the philosophy being that one never knows when one will be facing a handicap in a fight.

Terry and Joe both wear white gis and the other fighter wears a black undershirt. These colors correspond to the marbles and are also imbued with symbolic meaning. Black and white—combined as a sign system—has long had a moralistic connotation, symbolizing clear-cut morality: right and wrong, black and white, no shades of gray or ambiguous meanings or value systems. In the world of hand-to-hand combat, there is only the fight, and all that matters is honor. As Mike Terry—whose name signifies a very American masculinity—instructs as the two men fight: “the fight is the issue. The battle is the issue. Who imposes the terms of the battle will impose the terms of the peace.”

The fight is interrupted when Terry’s wife Sondra walks in through the front door of the dojo. The two men stop to look at her, which prompts Terry to say: “a man distracted is a man defeated.” Sondra is a distraction from this world of honorable combat, and she herself seems almost embarrassed to be there. Terry’s utterance about distraction seems like a standard mentor/trainer pearl of wisdom but is actually a plant that pays off in Act II, proving that Terry should’ve listened to his own advice.

Sondra scurries past the fighters to a small room in the back of the dojo where she immediately pulls out the dojo’s ledgers and starts going over computer records and trying to pay bills. The symbolism is clear: husband and wife live in different worlds. Sondra lives in the tight, contained realm of reality and money, while Terry resides in the amorphous, ethereal world of personal honor and combat. Sondra wants to ascend the class ladder, to have wealth and material status. Terry is content with leading a pure and unadorned life in his pure, unadorned dojo with the chipped paint and duct-taped bags.

REDBELT, Alice Braga, Chiwetel Ejiofor, 2008. ©Sony Pictures Classics

Indeed, every scene between Terry and Sondra—who are an interracial couple (Terry is African-American, Sondra is Brazilian) and thus personify the cultural cross-pollination at the root of the film—consists of a tense exchange about money. Sondra runs a successful Brazil-based garment business as opposed to Terry’s struggling dojo. Sondra is motivated by success and profit whereas such materialistic concerns are of no importance to Terry, who cares only about passing on the philosophical teachings of jujitsu.

The two are constantly at an impasse, unable to connect with each other’s world. Passages of dialogue explicitly signify this in the film. At one point Sondra asks Terry, “Are you afraid of money? How can we run your academy without money? You tell me that so I can do it and not disturb you and your purity. How am I going to run my business? All the time you need me, all the time all of my money is going to yours.”

Terry and Sondra are both fighters. Sondra fights for her beliefs—to be successful, to make money—just as Terry fights for his honor and the code of the warrior. They fight with equal tenacity and determination, but although he is seriously weakened at the end of the film, Terry emerges victorious because in the script’s code of meaning, he fights the pure fight.

Indeed, Sondra scoffs at Terry’s notion of honor. To her, honor is merely a device for escaping reality and running away from economic survival. She asks Terry facetiously, “You think it is noble? The code of the warrior?” Terry merely replies “no. I think it is correct.” She tells him “my father made money, my brothers make money, and you are somehow too pure. And what about the fighter’s family Mike? What do they eat while he is being so pure?”

Joe’s wife Gini also resents Terry’s conception of honor and how he has connected with her husband through it. She feels excluded from the bond that they share. When, after a disastrous series of events, Joe shoots himself so as not to bring dishonor to Terry or the dojo—a modern incarnation of seppuku—Gini blames Terry. She curses his name and his honor and thrusts a pile of unpaid bills at him, asking if he is going to pay them since a cop who commits suicide receives no pension.

The only woman in the film who breaks through the barrier and gains entry into Terry’s world of honor is Laura Black, a disturbed person who wanders into Terry’s dojo by chance after sideswiping his parked car on the street and wanting to make right. Laura is introduced in the second scene of the film talking on her cell phone while driving frantically at night in the pouring rain. Her first line of dialogue is “I’m lost,” which is accurate across multiple levels of meaning. She screams hysterically over the phone (though we never learn who she is talking to, contributing to the mystery swirling around her character) that she can’t find the pharmacy. She can barely see and struggles to stay on the road. That this scene takes place in the rain is in keeping with the aesthetic tradition of film noir, but also signifies that the character is in emotional turmoil; Laura Black cannot see clearly as she attempts to navigate through a supreme blackness.

Her character presents another point of opposition when it is revealed that she is an attorney. How can this disheveled, completely unstable mystery woman who spasms whenever anyone touches her or even approaches her also belong to a profession that is built on composure and professional comportment? The answer comes when she tells Terry that a man held a knife to her throat and raped her. Laura signs up for classes at the dojo, signifying that she is seeking answers and a way to regain control of her life. She asks Terry what the belts mean. He tells her they signify levels of knowledge. A white belt is given to someone who comes in off the street; a black belt is reserved for someone fit to teach. In between are blue, purple and brown. When she asks him what you have to do to get a red one, he replies that there is only one person with a red belt.

Terry helps Laura begin to heal from her trauma by showing her how she could have survived the encounter by stabbing the man with his own knife; he makes her feel safe again. He treats her as a sacred student and demonstrates to her one of his key tenets and one of the key tenets of jiu-jitsu: there is no situation you cannot escape from or turn to your advantage.

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After this lesson, when Laura begins to cry cathartically in the dojo, Terry tells her “it’s alright. There’s no one here but the fighters.” That line of dialogue signifies that Laura has been inaugurated into Terry’s world of spiritual purity and integrity. At the end of the film, Joe is dead and Sondra has betrayed Terry and sold him out. Only Laura remains at his side and the two share a spiritual connection undiluted by romance or infatuation.

Connected to the opposition of honor versus materialism is the polarity between competing and fighting. Throughout most of the film, Terry refuses to compete as a fighter because he feels that a competition is not a fight. A competition is a staged contest, a battle with rules that may be fixed; it is not pure. Sondra resents this as well, because competing would provide a steady source of income. Even Sondra’s brother Bruno Silva—who manages her other brother Ricardo, who is the Brazilian mixed martial arts champion who trained under the same professor as Terry—suggests Terry fight on the undercard of the fight between Ricardo Silva and Japanese champion Taketa Morisaki. But Terry holds true to his sense of morality.

So what agent can challenge Terry’s morality? What soulless money and power vacuum can sink their claws into him? Enter Hollywood. Aging action star Chet Frank (whose name signifies an effeteness appropriate of show business) invites Terry to his house for dinner after Terry happens to save him from a bar brawl by being in the right place at the right time. Terry agrees, and it’s here where all of the script’s story strands and sign systems start to dovetail.

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The one time that Sondra shows any sort of affection for Terry is when he receives the thank you note and dinner invitation from Chet and his wife. The note is written in meticulous calligraphy on expensive stationary—creating a sign system that signifies supreme wealth and upper-class status, a meaning that intoxicates Sondra. Of all the things her husband has done, the one that she is proud of is that he saved a movie star by chance, because it represents an opportunity to transcend her status, to become one of them.

When Terry expresses concern about going to dinner because he has a class to teach, Sondra tells him to “let the wheel come around,” to let life run its course, to take advantage of an opportunity. Terry sees the effect that his new acquaintance and the promise of material success could have on his wife and his marriage, and slowly allows himself to be seduced by the Hollywood elite. He tells Chet’s agent Jerry Weiss about his unique training method so it can be used in Chet’s film and even glows at the prospect of a co-producer credit. Sondra, similarly, warbles after entering into a garment business deal with Chet’s wife, going so far as to preemptively borrow $30k from a loan shark in preparation for it.

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Although the world of Hollywood and show business seems at first glance an oddly self-referential backdrop to embed a fight narrative within, it functions rather successfully as a catalyst to test Mike Terry and his devotion to his spiritually pure world. Just in case you hadn’t heard, no matter what anyone tells you, show business is fundamentally driven by money and the pursuit of material success. Terry may be the consummate fighter, but as he painfully learns, he is in over his head in the world of movie stars, agents, fight promoters and loan sharks. He is blinded by his sense of honor into naively trusting people he should regard as deadly opponents.

Terry accepts a subsequent invitation from Chet to attend the set of his latest movie. There, Terry immediately recognizes the fight coordinator/military advisor. The advisor inquires if Chet Frank or Jerry Weiss asked if Terry was in the military. Terry says yes. The advisor asks if Terry told them what he did. Terry replies, “No. They didn’t ask.” This is a textbook example of how to write subtextual dialogue.

By having Terry not tell us his military background, the script actually tells us more. It tells us that Terry is uncomfortable discussing his military background–he is a true film noir Man With A Past–and knows the ins and outs of military life, including jargon and other inside knowledge. It tells us that he was no run-of-the-mill grunt but, rather, some kind of specialized soldier. And later on, Jerry Weiss offers Terry a drink and Terry declines. Weiss asks him, “You don’t drink?” Terry replies, “I used to.” Again, Mamet is dealing with archetypal, borderline clichéd story beats here, but his subtextual execution of them draws us in and unquestionably hooks us.

The implication is that Terry drank to numb the pain of his violent memories before he discovered jujitsu.But for Terry, jujitsu is not an opportunity to inflict violence but to take control of your life and turn every situation to your advantage. As he tells Chet Frank, “turn to the side. Everything has a force. Embrace it or deflect it…why oppose it?” Terry has experienced enough violence in his life; he doesn’t need to actively seek it out. Terry’s mysterious, violent, and haunted past—a kind of truth—is revealed in the artificial environment of a movie set. Again, Mamet using contrasting systems of meaning–reality and show business–to reveal character. The whole film is a study in conveying narrative via points of opposition and subtext.

Mamet even takes seemingly insignificant symbols and sign systems and blows them up into huge plot points: also included with the thank-you note Terry receives from Chet is an expensive gold watch. It is a gift that is at once both lavish and totally impersonal, something that could have been given to anyone. It’s a cliché, basic and thoughtless—exactly what one would expect to receive as thanks from a wealthy individual. To Terry, it is a material item that means nothing. Immediately upon receiving it he gives it to Joe to pawn for himself, to make up for a job as a bouncer Terry got Joe in which the owner—who happens to be Sondra’s brother Bruno—never paid Joe for his services.

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But when Joe pawns the watch, the watch is revealed to be stolen. Joe is suspended from duty but won’t reveal where he got the watch from so as to not bring dishonor upon the dojo. This watch, this thoughtless gift from Chet Frank’s people (Jerry Weiss) brings about Joe’s death and Sondra’s betrayal. Terry confronts Weiss about the watch and his response is to cut off contact with Terry and to steal his unique training method with the black and white marbles and sell it to fight promoter Marty Brown, who uses it as a gimmick to attract new viewers to the fight between Ricardo Silva and Taketa Morisaki. Terry confronts Brown who doesn’t deny the allegation for a second, marveling at Terry’s naiveté.

Terry enlists Laura’s legal aid in suing Marty Brown and Weiss, but their attempt fails, in no small part because, as we later learn, Sondra gives them the goods needed to neutralize Terry and Laura; Sondra chooses money over honor and loyalty to her husband. Brown, ever the emotionless businessman, gives Terry his business card and suggests that Terry fight on the undercard—that is, take part in the competition that is illegally using his sacred training method as a cheap promotional gimmick. Terry declines. He returns to the dojo and sits alone, with Sondra nowhere to be found. He is consumed by the empty space and the emptiness he feels in the wake of being screwed by show business (imagine that) and the loss of his prized student and friend.

In a long shot we see Terry take a drink, presumably signifying that he has fallen off the wagon and is spiraling downward. We know that this moment is a big deal because we were told that Terry used to drink. He starts hitting a heavy bag, displaying an aggression he has not previously demonstrated. The bills that Gini thrust at him stare out as symbols of the real world breaking through Terry’s spiritual barrier. On the bottom of the bills is Marty Brown’s business card. Terry rotates it in his hand, knowing that fighting on the undercard is now the only way he can make the money to pay Gini’s bills and to bail out Sondra from her loan shark woes (Terry does not yet know that Sondra  sold him out). Terry can no longer hide in the dojo, where he can control the environment and ensure he leads a pure life. He must venture into the material world, an impure world where people make their own rules.

At this point, Redbelt is conforming to generic conventions of the American fight film. Like Rocky and Cinderella Man and Million Dollar Baby and The Setup, everything is leading up to the big fight where the hero must defy the odds and prove himself. In a vibrant example of postmodern screenwriting, Redbelt expects the audience to be familiar with the narrative structure established by these previous films. It plays on those expectations, ritualizing the lead up to the fight.

We see Terry in the dressing room putting on his gi and strapping on his sash, suiting up for battle, just as a cowboy straps on his six-shooters in a Western and a samurai retrieves his sword in a samurai film. We see Laura waiting for him in the crowd, ready to support him. But all this is Mamet’s misdirection. Right before the fight, Terry discovers that the whole competition is rigged, that Marty Brown employs an illusionist to switch the black and white marbles at will and control which fighter is issued a handicap.

Terry now realizes that Sondra has abandoned him and that her brother Ricardo has brought the professor that trained both him and Terry from Brazil and is going to throw the fight with Taketa right in front of him, so that he can make money on a rematch. He has lost all respect for the sacred craft of jujitsu, and that is too much for Terry to bear. He backs out of his fight and goes to tell Laura.

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Terry and Laura are framed in a long shot, completely alone. We do not hear their conversation—it is so personal and so private that not even the audience is privy to it. But when she slaps him ferociously, there is no doubt as to the meaning. Terry saved her life by teaching her that there is no situation one cannot escape from or turn to one’s advantage. But the professor is not practicing the lesson he taught her and is thus destroying its validity and the meaning it has brought to her life. The slap serves as the dramatic impetus for Terry to go back to the arena—not to fight in the traditional sense but to fight via announcing to the spectators that the fights are fixed.

He makes his way to the arena, slips through the ropes and is about to expose the corruption of the competition when he locks eyes with his Brazilian professor. Terry tries to make his way to sportscaster Dylan Flynn to blow the whistle, but he is accosted by a series of security guards and Bruno’s men. He takes them down one by one, making his way closer and closer to the fighting arena (and the public forum it provides that Terry seeks) until finally Ricardo himself gets in his way. The two men engage each other in the arena aisle.

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But this is a fight, not a competition—nothing is fixed or staged (although the fight does eventually draw the attention of the crowd and cameras until everyone in the stadium is watching them) and the only rule is put the other guy down. Terry can operate here because it is a pure situation; he is fighting not for sport but merely to prevail. The fight rages on until Ricardo holds Terry from behind and Terry is about to pass out in defeat. But at the last possible minute, Terry moves toward the wall and runs up it with his legs and flips backward over Ricardo, escaping the difficult chokehold. Terry holds him until he passes out.

This action visually signifies Terry letting the wheel come around. Sondra said this to Terry earlier in a different context, and now Terry has complied and has literally let the wheel come around to ensure his victory.From the crowd, Sondra, with the Franks, looks on, stricken with surprise and anger.

All eyes are frozen on Terry as he makes his way toward the center arena. Japanese champion Taketa Morisaki, who has yet to even fight, surrenders his belt—worth $250,000—to Terry, signifying that Terry is the true champion. Laura materializes and embraces Terry, for he has lived up to the ideals and tenets he taught her and has thus restored her faith. He gives her Morisaki’s belt, for as a symbol of money it means nothing to him, just as the watch didn’t.

The professor, in turn, hands Terry his prized red belt. Terry is stunned, paralyzed, and catatonic. These two men are alone in a sea of people, for they share a level of understanding that is exclusive to them. They both believe with their souls in honor, and Terry has upheld the ideal of honor that no one else—including fellow disciple Ricardo—would, even though it has nearly destroyed him. Terry remains the last samurai, the last cowboy, and the last warrior.

This is a silent exchange between Terry and his former professor. Nothing needs to be said. The film ends suddenly, rolling to black and leaving Terry frozen in that moment, signifying that his future is not resolved. He has upheld the honor that nearly destroyed him; he has achieved the ultimate purpose in his life. But what is he to do now? Is he a broken man or will he go on?

In what some have characterized as a simplistic ending, Mamet doesn’t answer those questions for the audience. He counts on us to uncover and interrogate the vast landscape of signs and sign systems, signals, codes and points of opposition contained within the film. The semiotic nature of the story allows us to understand how the narrative components are packaged and presented—how they are organized from act to sequence to scene to shot to frame, and how that organization creates specific meanings that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

Mamet uses thematic polarities to explore those meanings and test the ideological viewpoints of his characters, but leaves the final verdict to the audience. This idea parallels the protagonist and his teachings. Mike Terry can present ideas and levels of meaning and understanding to his students—but it is up to them how they absorb and apply them to their own lives. Mike Terry has fictional students while Mamet has us, and only we can decide how or how not to apply the layers of meaning and understanding that he presents to us in the film.

Some might look at Redbelt as atypical David Mamet, archetypal, generic and underwritten. Ending improbably on a naked emotional button but providing no answers in terms of themes, arcs or plot points. But what the film really does is set up a vast assemblage of polarities and sign systems in an accessible, archetypal framework and then allow the audience to interpret and assess them on their own terms. That’s an opportunity, not a shortcoming, because film is sometimes most effective and transformative when it is not contained and closely defined…when instead it lives on in the minds of the audience long after the credits roll.

Redbelt is a fascinating script because it is at once both classical and postmodern. Simultaneously it’s archetypically simplistic and ideologically complex. And any serious screenwriter can learn a ton from trying to break down everything Mamet is doing and trying to do with it.