2008, R, 99 min. Directed by David Mamet. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Emily Mortimer, Alice Braga, Tim Allen, Max Martini, Rodrigo Santoro, Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna, Rebecca Pidgeon, David Paymer, Ray Mancini, John Machado.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 9, 2008
While Mamet’s new film, Redbelt, is a distinctly Mametian work, in which the playwright and film writer/director’s signature motifs of honor, trickery, and manhood are all present, the movie may also represent a newer, more commercial approach to storytelling for the filmmaker. Certainly less profane in its language than many a Mamet outing, Redbelt is also more conventional in its narrative sources and ambitions. Redbelt is essentially a Hollywood B-movie, a story about a fighter forced into the ring by lousy circumstances and unscrupulous promoters. Although we’re familiar with this plot’s outline, Mamet and his outstanding leading man, Ejiofor, as the fighter Mike Terry, imbue the film with tonalities and perspectives that freshen the formula and make it also seem an especially personal allegory for Mamet’s contradictory impulses regarding the commerce of Hollywood. Terry is a jujitsu teacher who operates his own dojo in a seedy area of Los Angeles. He is a gentle man despite his lethal capabilities, a man whom his wife (Braga) derides as “too pure” to fight professionally and bring in some much-needed money to their marriage. When a bizarre random occurrence causes a police officer’s gun to go off in the opening sequence, it shatters the school’s plate-glass storefront and sets off a chain of events that have dire consequences for Terry and the cop (Martini), who is his prize student. All the lessons we hear Terry trying to burn into his students as they practice in those opening moments are forgotten as Terry, himself, becomes drawn down the rabbit hole of his own troubles (which arrive in the guise of success). Reminders that “a man distracted is a man defeated” and that “there’s always an escape” are the kind of mental principles he reiterates to his students as they attempt to free themselves from choke holds. However, these governing ideas fly from his cortex when he meets the movie star Chet Frank (Allen, in a subdued but confident dramatic turn) and becomes seduced by celebrity and its promises to turn his financial fortunes. Terry's distraction leads to his capitulation to a deal to enter a mixed-martial arts bout for the $50,000 purse, but he finds out too late that the deal is crooked. In the closing sequences, Terry seems to remember some of his own advice – either embrace force or deflect it – and he starts deflecting like crazy. Unfortunately, Mamet's visual skills are not on par with his writing skills. Both the opening and closing scenes of Redbelt contain poorly staged actions that impede viewer comprehension. The various members of the Brazilian cartel that appear to run the fights are ill-defined and tend toward broad stereotypes, although the martial arts milieu nevertheless has a realistic vibe (enhanced by the appearance of several real-life fighters and the professionalism of Mamet's regular coterie of actors). In the end, Redbelt prevails, just as Terry teaches his students to prevail, but getting there isn't always pretty.