David Mamet - a name that means theater at its very best. With such plays as Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo, and Glengarry Glen Ross, he has literally helped the arcane aesthetics of the stage grow up and mature. With dialogue that crackles with witty profaneness and a keen ear for newfound colloquialism, his efforts are usually a feast for the ear, and the brain. And now, apparently, it’s time to address the brawn - at least, when it comes to his work behind the camera. As a director, Mamet has given us such complex fare as House of Games, Homicide, and Spartan. None would be considered films of far thinking physicality. His latest endeavor, Redbelt, juxtaposes Asian codes of honor and duty with the growing phenomenon of mixed martial arts. It makes for a sometimes sloppy combo.
Mike Terry is a jujitsu instructor who specializes in his own take on the Brazilian form of the art. Noble to a fault, his business is failing, partly because he views his teaching to be more about life lessons than money made. Of course, his fashion designer wife sees things differently. She is sick of being strapped for cash and turning to her family - part of the professional extreme fighting circuit locally - for loans. One night, Mike helps aging Hollywood star Chet Frank fend off a group of attackers. Suddenly, he’s a possible part of show business, with a producer interested in buying in to his novel competition concept. Mike’s wife Sonya then borrows $30K from a loan shark to help Chet’s wife stock her boutique shelves. A misunderstanding leads to a tiff, and soon the debt is being called in. Mike has no choice but to enter the big fight, hoping he can show everyone the value in what he believes in while paying off the marker.
If there’s one thing Redbelt isn’t lacking, it’s plot. Mamet, known for his knotty narratives, literally overloads this film with more twists and turns than a Rocky Mountain roadway. Just when you think he can’t plow more storylines into his situations, the slightly bloated script finds room for five or six more. This doesn’t detract from the movie’s many charms, nor does it destroy the excellent performances overall. But when you, as an audience member, require a firm handle on what’s happening as a mandate for enjoying an already multifaceted story, being constantly sideswiped by more narrative is rather disconcerting. By the time we’ve been introduced to the lawyer with a past, the mobster with a decent heart, and the entire MMA universe, we’re woozy from all the overtures. And, of course, Mamet isn’t done misdirecting us.
Luckily, we enjoy the subterfuge, up to a point. Redbelt languishes over scenes of simmering rage, people loaded with pent up anger waiting for the right moment to strike out and make others suffer. The two or three fight scenes are sensational, but Mamet isn’t out to make a thinking man’s action flick. Instead, he hopes to use the brutality of the sport to underline the Zen within the discipline. He gives this job to actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, and he couldn’t have made a better choice. Body primed to play the part, and demeanor indicating a level of philosophical calm that’s almost impossible to illustrate visually, he gives a stirring, commanding turn. As Mike Terry, Ejiofor is required to be both hero and chump, vindicator and victim. He manages each move with wonderfully understated grace.
Equally compelling is the usually middling Tim Allen. Playing an egotistical superstar whose alcohol fueled folly gets Mike in trouble - and then in touch with Hollywood - there’s a real arrogance to his slightly paunchy persona. Other standouts in the cast include Ricky Jay as bad guy Marty Brown, ex-boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini as George the stunt coordinator, and David Paymer as bookie/loan shark Ritchie. Of course, there are some weak links as well, characters that come across as half shaped and ill-advised. Emily Mortimer’s shaky attorney has more personality quirks than a room full of theater majors, and Alice Braga can’t keep her put-upon spouse from being anything but a shrew. Luckily, they represent the only misgivings in what is a uniformly fine company.
Mamet’s script is no slouch, either. Again, it contains way too much plot for its own good, but a least the writer gives his characters some wonderful lines to speak. While Ejiofor occasionally sounds like a shaman in overdrive, there is a great deal of meaning in his mantras. Equally effective are the many “this is how the real world works” rants coming at Mike from all sides. Sure, all the ‘duty to the academy’ stuff can be a drag, but we enjoy the sentiment anyway. Indeed, much of Redbelt‘s success stems from how easily we forget Mamet’s convolutions and get caught up in the situations. This is a movie that actually works better in its individual moments than as an overall effort. Even the mandatory fisticuffs seem welded on from somewhere else.
Of course, no one expects the mind behind Speed-the-Plow to totally abandon his artistic intentions, and he wasn’t about to make the kind of popcorn fluff the summer season thrives on. But somewhere in Redbelt‘s running time is a mean, lean extreme fighting machine desperate to get out of all the metaphors and machinations. Mamet can be faulted for falling back into puzzle box mode. It’s what made his first films such tight genre gems. Here, there’s a feeling that some of the layers are illegitimate, added to make the butt kicking more palatable to a non-six pack crowd. There is no doubt that this writer suggests the literary art at its best. Redbelt may not be representative, but it sure does satisfy at times