Running Time: 99mins
Rated: Rating M (moderate coarse language and violence)
David Mamet won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1984 for his "Glengarry Glen Ross,' before he directed his first movie. His plays reflect total honesty and freedom from illusion and in them he frequently explores masculinity, as he also does in this film. Here, he turns to the sport of Jiu-Jitsu, which provides the background for his cynical reflections on life. This is quality movie about a Jiu-Jitsu instructor, Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who puts his marriage, his business and the life of his friends at risk by his inability to compromise with life's events, or adapt to them as they unfold around him. Terry is entirely principled and thinks competition is demeaning to the art of Jiu-Jitsu. Tender and tough at the same time, he tries to run a financially strapped academy situated on LA's south side, leaving his wife (Alice Braga) to cope with their financial woes.
With a title such as this, one expects an action-packed film about the sport of Jiu-Jitsu, and for martial arts fans there is still a lot of action left in it. However, this is much more a thinking person's movie, and it explores the philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of Jiu-Jitsu in an original and inspiring way. This is essentially a human drama that unfolds in the context of martial arts action, and firmly placed within that setting, it is also about the corrupt politics of the entertainment industry and the grasping values of competition sport, where matches are fixed in the name of profit. Following an incident at his academy with a disturbed woman (well played by Emily Mortimer), and involving a police officer who looks the other way, and who later suicides because of the consequences of doing that, his money problems increase. Terry is let down by many people, including an aging, TV star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) who he has defended in a fight. He is asked to help with the TV show's production by its manager (Joe Mantegna). After he confronts their own corruption, they step away from any assistance, and he is left deserted once again, which places additional strain on his shaky marriage. To try to solve his financial woes, he reluctantly takes part in a martial arts competition where he confronts the corruption of those around him, and wins.
There are shades of "Billy Budd' about the character of Terry. He personifies "goodness' and it is so easy for that to move off target, or look disingenuous, and in this film it doesn't. Mamet never lets go of his idealism and the film poses constant challenges between the integrity and goodness of Terry, and the corruption and guile of others. The philosophical underpinnings of Jiu-Jitsu are used effectively by the director to explore his familiar dramatic themes of greed and corruption. Terry's confrontation with those around him, including his wife, challenges his personal values and the movie becomes an odyssey of preserving values, irrespective of their consequences. The interplay between value, consequence, cost, and personal compromise is a major feature of the film which is so much more than one expects, given its look as a fight movie. The acting is strong, particularly that of Terry, the music is pulsing, the direction is tightly controlled, and the tension never dissipates. Mamet is known for his biting observations of life, and this movie is quite characteristic in allowing him to give vent to them through a great script.
The director of this film holds a purple belt in the art of Jiu-Jitsu and knows very well the darkness of the world he is discussing. It is that world, which fortunately he doesn't want us to forget.
Sony Pictures Out 14th August 2008
Peter W. Sheehan. Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.