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Mamet on the mat

A martial-arts film? It's no surprise once you know that the writer-director is a 'Redbelt' kind of guy.

May 03, 2008|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer
  • TOUGH: David Mamet, ever cagey with quotes, says merely that he took up Brazilian jiu-jitsu because it looked interesting. ?Like a fun thing to do.?
TOUGH: David Mamet, ever cagey with quotes, says merely that he took up Brazilian… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

David MAMET would prefer to avoid conflict, but he isn't above choking another man into unconsciousness. He knows where the body's pressure points are and how to use them. And although the Chicago transplant never sets out to "win" a fight, his aim, should he be drawn into one, is simple: Don't lose.

Turns out Mamet's got a purple belt in jiu-jitsu. Who knew?

Quite a bit of dojo wisdom came up in conversation one sunny morning outside Street Sports Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the Santa Monica academy where the Pulitzer Prize winner has studied martial arts for the last seven years. Lately, the way of the warrior has been front of mind for Mamet on both professional and personal levels.

The writer-director's cerebral martial-arts potboiler, "Redbelt," reached theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday and will open wide across the country this coming Friday. The film follows a jiu-jitsu academy owner (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who obeys a strict samurai code of honor; the prize fight circuit is anathema to his sense of integrity -- never mind the current cultural tipping point at which mixed martial arts has become the fastest growing sport in the country.

However, when he gets sucked into a typically Mametian vortex of corruption, exploitation and deceit (Hollywood hard chargers and unscrupulous fight promoters are mostly to blame), the character must either suit up for a high-stakes cage fight at an Ultimate Fighting Championship-style event or fall short of his high moral ideals and face bankruptcy.

"The movie is my love letter to the world and philosophy of jiu-jitsu," Mamet said.

Tough-talking guys in emotionally fraught situations have long been subject matter A for the prolific pen-pusher behind such plays as "Speed-the-Plow" and "Glengarry Glen Ross" and screenplays including "The Verdict" and "Wag the Dog." But, until now, the art house hero has steered clear of fight films, racking up nine movie credits as a writer-director ("The Spanish Prisoner" and "State and Main" among them) in addition to his sideline as an author, essayist and contributing cartoonist to the Huffington Post.

Judging from pre-release excitement about "Redbelt" in mixed martial arts circles, Mamet's aesthete pedigree is doing him no disservice. And to hear it from several high-level jiu-jitsu practitioners, the 60-year-old indie auteur does more than simply understand the action sports metier. He can give as good as he gets when it comes to grappling, chokeholds and submission techniques.

"He's a tough guy," said Renato Magno, one of Brazilian jiu-jitsu's most respected practitioners and Mamet's instructor at Street Sports since 2001. "I think he uses jiu-jitsu very well. You're using your leverage, your balance -- you use your intellect. It's like a chess game. That's why he's enthusiastic. He's no young guy. But he has a lot of dedication to the sport."

Check out this arm block

Without Ed O'Neill, it's unlikely that Mamet -- who has also boxed, wrestled and dabbled in kung fu -- would have found his way into the world of arm bars and hip throws. That is to say, the actor best known for portraying Al Bundy on "Married . . . With Children" turned Mamet on not only to the sport when the writer-director moved to Los Angeles seven years ago but also to Street Sports, which is just blocks from Mamet's office.

"David wanted me to do 'The Spanish Prisoner' in New York, and when I was there, I demonstrated a choke, an arm block," O'Neill recalled. "When he moved out here, it was in the back of his mind."

"It looked interesting. Like a fun thing to do," is all Mamet will divulge about his initial interest.

In March, O'Neill earned his black belt in jiu-jitsu after 15 years of training at Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy -- owned and operated by the dynastic Brazilian family credited with founding the sport, popularizing it in this country and co-creating the UFC -- becoming one of only five Americans to have been awarded the school's highest ranking.

As someone at the top of his game who happens to have been in Mamet's plays and movies since 1980 -- and who will appear in a run of Mamet's one-act farce "Keep Your Pantheon," scheduled to run alongside his short play "The Duck Variations" beginning May 18 at Culver City's Kirk Douglas Theatre -- O'Neill offered a sober appraisal of the playwright's skill set.

"Dave is a very game, pugnacious guy. You would be hard-pressed if he got ahold of you," O'Neill said. "Good tendon strength. He's been rumored to be smart, so he can apply the techniques of jiu-jitsu properly. He immerses himself in it. He's passionate about it. He goes 100%. And I know from talking to some of the guys he's rolled with, it's no day at the beach."

Giver of noogies

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