Chiwetal Ejiofor is a big reason why this film wormed its way onto the list. I think that even those of you who may actively dislike this film ought to at least respect his performance.
I had seen him in bit parts before this, but this is the film, the one in which Mamet gave him the lead role and allowed him to be a presence, that caught my attention. I’ve never been able to ignore the man since and am always interested when he’s in a project. On the commentary track for Redbelt, Mamet compares Ejiofor to Henry Fonda. I’ve always thought that this is an apt comparison.
Ejiofor’s character in the film is the heart of the film. He is a strong man with a strong presence and a strong moral code. This is good. This is a character we care about who will face dilemmas we will be troubled by. The problem is that all of the other characters in the film are weak and shallow in comparison.
We get the nagging hero’s wife who becomes the betraying wife. We get the best friend of the hero who gets crushed under the weight of demands of purity not meant for the life he is living. We get the troubled lawyer woman who must learn from our hero and admire him. We get those who oppose our hero, who in various ways embody a corrupt capitalist system designed for compromise of integrity. Everyone compromises just to get by. Except our hero.
So, yeah, there are problems with the film. But the problems are also the film’s strength. Chiwetal Ejiofor owns this character and communicates depths in silent gestures. All of life is a moral struggle for him, every word, every action. This is an exaggerated tale that focuses on him and does not care that anyone else be as real as he is. There is a danger to this, but there is also a clarity in it. Here is a tale of one man not willing to compromise. Maybe, just maybe, some of the rest of us can follow this same path. Maybe no one else will understand, but we stick to a path regardless of who else will follow. Maybe.
These themes will recur on my list. Redbelt is a minor example of a story that matters to me, that I need to hear repeatedly, that discipline and integrity are more important than respect or certain measures of success. Honor may or may not ultimately come, but it won’t be cheap and it won't be easy.
What’s more, I find the film easy to watch. I’ve rewatched it several times, choosing to watch it again over “better” movies. Mamet is always good with rhythm. Here, he tried for what I think is his most cinematic effort. There is nothing flashy on display, but the film is fluid, easy to watch, commanding attention. The script is important, but it’s in the silences and slow moments that character is revealed. In fact, the weakest part of the film/script is when Mamet introduces a small con perpetrated by some Hollywood types allied with Ricky Jay as a fight organizer. (Mamet was just throwing his friend a bone here. I don’t think that Jay works so well in the role; on the other hand, Allen is great in his small role. This film briefly convinced me that Allen was going to have a big comeback in serious roles. It didn’t happen.)
I’m also a fan of Mamet’s House of Games from 1987. That film probably would have made earlier versions of this list if earlier versions of this list had ever existed.
Many of this film’s most perceptive reviewers noted (whether they ultimately liked the film or not) that there is a “b-movie” “noir” “pulpy” feeling to it all. I agree.
I can’t find my favorite review of the film from 2008. I’ll keep looking. I’m pretty sure that it was by a woman and that it pointed out the ways in which Redbelt subverts the boxing film genre by having the climactic fight take place outside of the ring.
The film was shot by Robert Elswit. He will be returning once more much higher on this list. There are a few other films he’s shot that would land in the 101-200 range, probably, if we were ever crazy enough to try that (I don’t think I could do it.) In exciting news, Elswit is cinematographer on a soonish-to-be-released film, Suburbicon, directed by George Clooney, based on a Coens script.