Redbelt (United States, 2008)
Most directors, upon entering a genre with which they lack familiarity, adhere strictly to "the book." David Mamet, however, throws "the book" out the window. The resulting movie, a mixed martial arts concoction called Redbelt, is different than what fans of Mamet, MMA, or anything else are likely to have seen before. The plot is borderline ridiculous and certainly doesn't stand up to close (or even not-so-close) scrutiny, but there's a level of entertainment to be had watching it unfold in all its strangeness. And, as always with Mamet, there's the question of whether his particular method of directing actors to speak his dialogue (a mannered, staccato delivery) is effective or distracting, or perhaps both.
Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the owner of a small self-defense studio that teaches karate, jujitsu, and a variety of other techniques. His "prize pupil" is police officer Joe (Max Martini), whom he instructs not only in the arts of physical domination but in the need to maintain respect and honor in all areas of his life. Despite badly needing money, Mike will not enter MMA competitions because he believes they demean the life lessons he is trying to impart. His lovely wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), is losing patience with his code of conduct as she funnels money from her successful business into his unsuccessful one. One evening, a distraught woman (Emily Mortimer) stumbles into the studio searching for help. When Joe tries to assist her, she mistakes his actions for an attack, grabs his gun, and fires it. The only casualty is the store's front plate glass window, but the replacement cost is another nail in Mike's financial coffin. His luck takes a positive turn, however, when he visits a bar owned by his brother-in-law and defends action star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) in a bar fight. Chet is grateful and wants to get to know Mike, but his motives may not be as simple as pure gratitude.
Because nothing is as straightforward as it initially seems, one has to pay attention to Redbelt to avoid becoming lost. Even for those attention does not wander, the density of the plot can be daunting and the situation is made problematical by a lack of coherence and consistency. The more one understands the scam underlying Mike's circumstances, the more it becomes apparent that it simply doesn't work. Even if a viewer was to accept that holes are being plugged by off-screen factors, the plan demands too many coincidences to be credible. Thus, the delicious quality of the double-crosses loses its zest.
Human interaction is also not Redbelt's strong suit. Several scenes with potentially potent emotional content (a suicide, a betrayal) feel flat because the characters barely react. In fact, in one scene, a widow confronts Mike about her husband's death and there are no tears or grief - just anger that she won't be able to pay the bills. Considering what we know about the marriage, this response rings false. There's a sense that Mamet spent so much time and effort crafting the dialogue that he lost sight of the bigger picture.
The movie is being marketed as a sports film with several big name stars. While the cast is populated by a number of recognizable names, the ones with the most screen time are Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alice Braga, and Emily Mortimer. Tim Allen has a relatively small role as a big-time Hollywood star who doesn't do as well in real-life fights as in movie struggles. (The fact that he walks into a bar without his usual entourage is a clue that something's not on the level.) Allen is generally a cinematic lightweight but this is some of the best work he has on the big screen. Mamet regulars like Ricky Jay, Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's wife), and Joe Mantegna make their obligatory appearances.
Redbelt moves inexorably toward the climactic event of any sports movie: the ultimate bout. Mamet does something smart here, changing things up but in a way that won't disappoint those who want their pound of flesh. Once again, it's necessary to throw reality out the window because it doesn't apply but, taken at face value, there's a degree of satisfaction in the way Redbelt concludes. Anyone attending with the expectations that this is going to satisfy a primal desire for wall-to-wall combat will be sadly disappointed. This is a movie of contradictions. It's neither uninteresting nor unentertaining, but the plot is as threadbare as an old carpet and Mamet's narrative contortions will leave many viewers scratching their heads.
Redbelt (United States, 2008)
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Alice Braga, Emily Mortimer, Joe Mantegna, David Paymer, Ricky Jay, Max Martini, Jose Pablo Cantillo
Screenplay: David Mamet
Cinematography: Robert Elswit
Music: Stephen Endelman
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics