What in this life doesn’t get you into trouble?
— Chet (Tim Allen)
“The hands are not the issue, the fight is the issue.” When Brazilian jujitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) offers this wisdom to a student, he makes clear that we have entered one more time into David Mamet’s universe, where the fight is always the issue. “You control yourself,” Mike advises, “you control him,” your opponent, even, in some framing, your alternative self. A somber Gulf War veteran and dedicated martial arts master, Mike knows masculine business: “A man distracted,” he cautions, “is a man defeated.”
Enter the distractions. Mike first appears in Redbelt in his studio in L.A., instructing a cop named Joe (Max Martini, excellent here as he is in Mamet’s TV series, The Unit). As they work, again and again, on the move Joe can’t quite conquer, Mike is patient and insistent, a confident, inspiring teacher. He’s also a devoted husband to Sondra (Alice Braga), whose arrival on the scene indicates the sort of concern that will muck up his masculine values — namely, money. A clothing designer by training, she’s also bookkeeper for Mike’s business, meaning that she’s the one who reminds him they’re short again this month. “There’s always an escape,” Mike tells Joe, pinned to the mat. “You don’t fight our way clear. You know the escape.”
As much as Mike believes what he says, he will face questions in Redbelt concerning those masculine values to which he is so sincerely dedicated. The first arrives in the form of bad-driving, drugs-seeking lawyer Laura Black (Emily Mortimer). Careening down the street, she has an accident, then barges into Mike’s studio-sanctuary in a panicky search for help. A few mishaps and misunderstandings later — all rendered in Mamet’s rat-a-tat tempo — Joe’s gun has been shot through Mike’s storefront window and legal issues are multiplying. Mike immediately seeks the most efficient escape, hoping that a few fibs and manipulations will make any seeming crimes disappear. He’s wrong, of course, and so he is soon immersed in mess of corruption and illegalities.
Again, this mess is premised on money. In need of cash to replace the window, Mike goes along with a scheme that will eventually turn into another scheme. The tempter here is Chet Frank (Tim Allen), a movie star with masculine image issues. This much is clear when he meets Mike on the occasion of a bar fight. Though he means to do the honorable thing, Mike’s deft dispatching of the troublemakers is caught on surveillance tape, eventually played for Chet’s producer, Jerry Weiss (Joe Mantegna), who decides that Mike is the perfect guy to advise on Chet’s current project, an effort to sustain (or recover) his action star status that’s set during Desert Storm. Though he’s not precisely convinced that such prostituting of his expertise is kosher, Mike goes along, because — say it again — he needs the money.
Though he has no way of knowing it yet, Mike is now inextricably tangled up in the sort of con-man hell that Mamet has made his métier. Redbelt‘s version involves intellectual copyrights and movie scripts, but more emphatically, it’s about men and mannish codes. Alternately desperate, clever, and goofy, Mike repeatedly runs into corners, turns around, backs up, and slams his way into yet another corner. Sondra, at least briefly impressed by the blingy display she sees when she and Mike are invited to dinner at Chet and his wife Zena’s (Rebecca Pidgeon, icily complicated, as always), voices her worry that Mike’s dedication to “the code of the warrior” is impractical. But Mike can’t imagine himself any other way. “I train to people to prevail,” he says, to “put the other guy down.”
Such a view is challenged when Mike’s serial errors in judgment lead him into a martial arts showdown where outcome is fixed. (“Everyone has rules,” says Chet, “The problem is sticking to them.”) Advised by none other than Mamet regular icky Jay that the fastest way he can make some money is to “fight on the undercard,” Mike is righteously reluctant, but unable to find his escape. And so he agrees to fight, even though he’s scheduled to lose. Here the movie amps up the brutality, making clear that the machinations to this point have been designed to get to this forceful metaphor that is also utterly literal: fighting men.
Beautifully choreographed by Mamet’s own instructor, Renato Magno, and percussively scored by Stephen Endelman, the combat sets Mike against the “big business” of fights, against the perpetual cheats and the way things are. Apparently he seeks something like individual honor, however distorted by plot contrivances and a discomfortingly conventional romance. Bloodied and vulnerable, compromised and frustrated, abstract and wholly concrete, Mike fights. That’s what a man does.