Tough, David Mamet

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.” (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times / April 14, 2008)

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

Nonetheless, when Mamet dropped by Street Sports recently, he was greeted warmly by several students -- tough guys with buzz cuts and black belts to whom he proceeded to give friendly noogies on sight. Fittingly enough, the school's wider community had everything to do with the content, narrative verisimilitude and casting of "Redbelt."

"Over the last years, David said to me, 'Let's do a movie about Brazilian jiu-jitsu,' " Magno recalled (Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a separate and distinct martial art from its Japanese forebear, jujitsu). "So we'd meet up every Friday, talk about it at lunch. We went to see some tournaments, grappling competitions. I tried to give him the raw material."

Also, through his connections at Street Sports and Magno's introductions, Mamet was able to enlist a who's who of mixed martial arts and boxing luminaries in supporting roles. Three-time UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture has a role as a commentator; former WBA lightweight champ Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini plays a movie stunt coordinator, and John Machado, a multiple world jiu-jitsu titleholder, appears as the Brazilian champion Ejiofor's character must square off against in the film's climactic battle.

Mamet credits Magno, who served as a technical consultant on "Redbelt," with inspiring him. "Much of it is a homage to Renato and the people he introduced me to," he said. "A lot of them, guys from Brazil like John Machado, Rorian and Rickson Gracie, they understand jiu-jitsu as a spiritual discipline. It's a way of looking at life."

Even though mixed martial arts has reached a kind of cultural apogee lately -- with televised bouts scheduled to appear on CBS and reality television shows about the sport regularly airing on Spike TV and Black Entertainment Television, as well as a spate of theatrical films, including "Never Back Down" and "Flash Point" -- Mamet said nothing other than personal enthusiasm and kismet had factored into his making "Redbelt."

"It takes a long time to do a movie," he said. "And to have it synergistically mesh with something that's going on in the world, it's an accident. I did that with 'Wag the Dog.' Exactly the same thing going on with the Monica Lewinsky scandal was in the movie."

Mamet surveyed the practice facility's padded walls and floors. "The guys who train here are real fighters," he said. "Cops and Navy SEALS, stuntmen and bouncers. They come to learn skills in the real world.

"Why do a movie about this? There's no real answer. One's choices are not the result of intellectualization. It's the result of inspiration."

chris.lee@latimes.com