Redbelt

Reviewed by Jon Korn

In his new film, writer-director David Mamet tackles a new genre but finds some very familiar results. The premise sounds like the set up for a viral parody: what if Mamet did a martial arts flick The joke is on us, though, as Redbelt is completely and unbelievably serious.

The film starts well, but fails to deliver on its considerable potential. Drawing on his own Jiu-jitsu training, Mamet immerses us in the odd, insular world of Mixed Martial Arts fighting. Brazilian and Japanese cultures mix with Southern California style, creating an odd hybrid that obviously inspired the famed East Coast playwright and filmmaker. Sadly, rather than embrace the newness of his setting, Mamet returns to his favorite themes, turning the story in an awkward amalgam of action movie, Hollywood satire and Big Con.

Along with the confused tone, Mamets trademark, profanity-laced writing, feels rather thin. Much of the dialogue seems limp in comparison to his previous work, lacking in the director's expected hypnotic cadence and profanity-laced wit. The directing is more successful, especially the expertly choreographed fight scenes, but there are very few of these.

Equally disappointing is the fact that the fine cast is given little to work with. As self-defense studio owner Mike Terry, the always-reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, The Inside Man) seems lost, just as unable as the audience to explain his characters decisions. Tim Allen, another Mamet newcomer, can barely contain his excitement at being included in the fun, adding little to his similarly underwritten vapid action star. The numerous familiar faces in the supporting cast, including Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay and Mamets wife Rebecca Pidgeon, do a little better, perhaps due to their familiarity to Mamets distinctive dialogue.

The film's plot centers around the studio that ex-soldier Terry runs with his Brazilian wife Sondra (Alice Braga), a business that suffers due to his archaic sense of honor. Terrys piousness also has positive effects, though, as he inspires his prize student Joe (Max Martini), a policeman, to not report an accident involving his service weapon, a plate glass window and troubled lawyer Laura (Emily Mortimer).

As their debts grow, Sondra forces Terry to see her brother Bruno (Rodrigo Santoro), a shady fight promoter, and ask for a loan. At Brunos bar, Terry is drawn into a bar fight and while protecting Chet Frank (Allen), a well-known actor. Frank shows his appreciation by inviting Terry and Sondra over to dinner with his wife Zena (Pidgeon) and his producer Jerry (Mantegna). The two couples make numerous business plans, including Terry becoming a producer/advisor on Frank and Jerrys newest project, a war film. The Terrys financial problems appear to be over.

However, this being Mamet, nothing is what it seems, and everything quickly falls apart. Terry discovers that not only do Frank and Jerry have no intention of hiring him, but also that they have stolen one of his signature training methods: randomly assigning handicaps to one of the fighters in a bout. Terry gets some good legal advice from Laura, but is betrayed when the particulars of her accident come to light.

Left with no other choice and facing financial ruin, Terry enters a tournament organized by Bruno and his new partner Jerry, which incorporates the stolen handicap idea. His dilemma is to stay true to his personal code, while also finding way out of the terrible mess.

The plotting is a confusing, cantilevered mess, completely dependent on unbelievable coincidences that Mamet has avoided in most of his previous films. The revealation of Frank and Jerrys con is telegraphed, but just as wholly unmotivated by anything that has come before it. One is left wondering why Terrys idea, which is hardly groundbreaking, is worth the trouble. That's merely one of the numerous questions the pile up as the story progresses, ultimately overwhelming the plot and rendering the ending meaningless.

On the technical side of things, the filmmakers find more success. Director of photography Robert Elswit and Editor Barbara Tolliver deliver their usual stellar work, finding fresh ways to shoot and cut the fights. The fight choreography is interesting as well, reflecting the more realistic mixed martial arts style, and it was done by Mamets own teacher, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu guru Renato Magno.

In March of this year, an article written by David Mamet entitled Why I am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal appeared in the Village Voice, in whhich Mamet relates the thought process behind his jump across the aisle, coming out as a strict constitutional constructionist. While there is no acknowledged connection, it is tempting to link this development with the equally uncharacteristic detour that Redbelt represents. Mamet is trying out new things, which is admirable, but one hopes that he doesnt go so far into new territory that he forgets how to get back home.

Sony Classics will release the film on May 9.

Cast

Chiwetel Ejiofor
Alica Braga
Emily Mortimer
Tim Allen
Joe Mantegna
Ricky Jay
Rodrigo Santoro
Jennifer Grey
Rebecca Pidgeon

Credits

Running Time: 99 minutes.
MPAA Rating: R.

Screenwriter-Director: David Mamet
Producer: Chrisann Verges
Director of Photography: Robert Elswit
Production designer: David Wasco
Music: Stephen Endelman
Costume designer: Debra McGuire
Editor: Barbara Tolliver