Mixed martial arts (MMA) have come a bloody long way since John McCain legendarily dubbed the sport “human cockfighting” in 1996. Its flagship organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), aired eight of the top 15 pay-per-view programs in 2007 (boxing had four), while two smaller outfits (Strikeforce and EliteXC) have recently inked deals to air events on NBC and CBS. With major media outlets slowly offering more coverage and the sport’s popularity continuing to crest, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood got its opportunistic hands on those tantalizing cauliflower ears… right?
Uncharacteristic of the movie business, producers are showing restraint in capitalizing on the fad, perhaps still haunted by McCain’s “cock” slam. David Mamet encountered fierce resistance to his new MMA influenced film, “Redbelt,” as he tells Sam Alipour of ESPN.com: “Everybody in Hollywood passed on it. One of the things I talked about (in the pitch) was the demographics of UFC. Look at who goes to these fights. Look at how many follow on TV. It’s huge among young males, exactly the demographic studios are trying to reach. You’re wondering how you can get these people to see a film? Well, this is your answer. The reaction was baffling.”
Much of the reason still lies in the sport’s “barbaric” reputation, a holdover from the early days of the UFC, when they advertised, “There are no rules!” and trumpeted supposed mismatches between heavyweights and lightweights. Editorials are regularly churned out about the “bestial” nature of the sport (shockingly, Don King and Bill O’Reilly have joined the chorus), despite the UFC’s relatively clean bill of health (no life-threatening injuries to date), at least in comparison to pro boxing’s spotty history. After McCain virtually bankrupted the business by encouraging governors to outlaw the fights (which 36 states obliged), the UFC was bought out in 2001 by the marketing-savvy company Zuffa. Although the UFC had already instituted a series of new regulations (no blows to the back of the head, etc.) that cleared them to hold an event in New Jersey in 2000, the new owners claimed to be innovators of the sport, and started to convince regulatory commissions, state by state, that they were safe enough to be allowed into their fair cities. In other words, they were no longer barbarians, but could still get fans to pay at the gate. Now even McCain says that “the sport has grown up,” and most states have legalized it.
Another reason for Hollywood’s reluctant embrace of MMA is the question of whether these fighting styles can even translate effectively to the screen. Mamet brings this up in a 2006 Playboy piece he wrote about the sport how do you film the jiu-jitsu fights themselves? He claims that the form never broke into national consciousness like kung fu or karate because it is inherently uncinematic: “A fight, to be dramatic, must allow the viewer to see the combatants now coming together, now separating… Jiu-jitsu involves tying up that is, closing the distance and keeping it closed…It is not dramatic. It is just effective.” Fights that employ this style tend to look like especially sweaty make-out sessions that go on for three rounds. “Never Back Down,” an MMA version of “High School Musical” released earlier this year, dealt with this issue by literally skipping over the foreplay, utilizing MTV-style montage to jump to the submissions, eliding the minutes of groping and intricate body contortions it takes to get there. On “Redbelt,” Mamet and cinematographer Robert Elswit (hot off of “There Will Be Blood”) take a more intimate route, employing very tight handheld framing to capture the technical skill involved in these grappling battles. These fights are not about thrills, but as the main character Mike Terry says, “I train to prevail, not to fight.” They are merely the most efficient means to an end. The main visual interest in the film, as Mamet noted in the New York Times, are the faces, which Elswit tends to shoot in profile on extreme edges of the widescreen frame, their bruised faces as purple as Mamet’s prose is lean.
The film continues Mamet’s obsession with secretive male societies on the edge of the law (gamblers in “House of Games,” security officers in “Spartan,” thieves in “Heist”). “Redbelt” follows the moral path of Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an ascetic jiu-jitsu instructor who intones that “competition weakens the fighter.” Mamet, a jiu-jitsu student for over five years, treats the martial art more as a philosophy than a physical skill, a conduit for self-discipline and moral purity. Terry is like a masterless samurai planted into modern day L.A, his codes of honor ridiculous to the more practical-minded citizens (and viewers) around him. Terry’s refusal to compromise on the ethics of fighting leads him on a collision course with the market economy that’s dying to exploit both his mind and body. Mamet’s Manichean setup can be overwrought at times, but it’s the necessary backdrop for his passionate defense of martial values. It ends in an improbable PPV fantasy, an alternate floodlit universe where the old samurai ways triumph for a night and momentarily silence the bloodthirsty bleatings of the marketplace.
In other words, not good tie-in material for the UFC, which is still too busy trying to land a cable deal with HBO or Showtime to concern themselves with the movie business yet. But at this point it seems inevitable that an MMA movie genre will shortly work itself out, likely plotting a middle road between the populist street fights of “Never Back Down” and the angsty existential battles of “Redbelt.” The visual grammar of MMA is in its infancy, but I hope the Mamet film provides the template: an economic, unobtrusive style seems appropriate for such brutally efficient fighting a science more salty than sweet.
[Photo: “Redbelt,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008; “Never Back Down,” Summit Entertainment, 2008]