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Training for Warriors:
The Ultimate Mixed Martial Arts Workout
by Martin Rooney
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
In Jiu-Jitsu and related martial arts, when you achieve black belt status you've acquired the brass ring of the sport and the discipline. You can continue to improve to the fifth degree of black belt as you improve in competitive mastery, but there's no higher belt designation to aspire to. Except one. The red belt. And, there's only one in the world, currently held by an aged but eminent Japanese great grand master (according to the film--it's a little more complicated in reality, varying by school). The honor is so singular that few black belts even think about it.
Fight promoters, however, have no compunctions about using the red belt as a symbol and stimulus for their commercial bottom line, which rises up from a sinkhole of ethics and morals. This is where fixed fights are just the way to keep the crowds tantalized and their personal pockets filled to the brim.
These high-stakes operators use a gimmick to control the outcome of the fights they stage. In their uncontrolled environment of mixed martial arts, each fighter must pull one of three round stones hidden in a bowl. The stones come in white or black. Choose a white one and you fight with no handicap, or restraint. A black one means you fight with one or both hands tied, or worse.
Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an example of an expert whose self-defense studio is devoted as much to his mixture of jiu-kitsu, wrestling, boxing and kickboxing as to the honor and code of the Samurai who, in their early history, set the standard for rules of conduct among fighters. So removed is he from the world of fight commercialization that his clients are few and the business is hanging on by a thread. He can barely make the rent, as his wife and business manager Sondra (luscious Brazilian beauty Alice Braga, niece of Sonya) repeatedly makes clear.
An unfortunate and bizarre set of circumstances makes the point even clearer. Terry's favorite student, Joe Ryan, (Max Martini) a cop, is close to receiving his black belt. What's about to happen will win anyone's contest for the use of coincidence in plot construction. After a session, Ryan gets dressed, down to his gun on a chest harness. Terry, seeing the straps, causes Ryan to remove the gun and place it on a table for a little demonstration of the strap's increase in vulnerability.
While this impromptu lesson is taking place, Laura Black, (Emily Mortimer) a stranger, a lawyer by profession, desperately in need of medications after the drug store closes, scrapes the side of a small truck and enters Terry's studio to find the owner. There's a scuffle when she defends what she thinks is a molestation, and she winds up grabbing the gun and firing it. The bullet goes wild and smashes out the front window, and Terry must now choose between making the rent and buying a new window.
The choices are unique, the sheer number of characters is overpowering, the style is consistently Mamet, which we've seen before in such morality pieces as "State and Main," "The Winslow Boy," and "The Spanish Prisoner". Of all of them, this may be considered his most concentrated and personal, if not his best.
The personal aspect is finely chiseled out of the raw material of decency by Ejiofor who, for my money, delivers his best work since "Dirty Pretty Things." But that reaction may only be because he plays such an exemplary man, a beacon of being true to himself in a mercenary, corrupting world. But, it's also because it's the actor stripped of character overlays to make him exotic, ("Red Dust," "Children of Men") a colorful artiste ("Kinky Boots") or oh so hip ("Love Actually"). One thing he makes abundantly clear: the solidity of his performing art.
A lot of what may be criticised here is also part of the film's strengths and virtues. As the central character makes his way along his circuitous path, the surprise importance of characters (to the story and its outcome) that flow in without a prior set up or expectation is both a diffusion of dramatic focus and a device that keeps the story fresh.
All of which really doesn't add up to a perfect film, but Mamet's taste for character integrity keeps you cheering for the moral figure who leads us to redemption, despite the coincidences and the cliche'-avoidance maneuvers that get him there.
~~ Jules Brenner