“There is nothing from which you cannot escape,” says the martial arts instructor protagonist as his chief principle in David Mamet’s Redbelt. But you know that since he is the hero of a David Mamet film, he will be put through the gauntlet of con games and deceptions and have that very principle severely tested beyond the realm of physical defense. Few can spin out the con games better and this one provides another compelling one up until a finale that unfortunately forgets that it should remain a shell game.
The hero is Mike Terry, who, as played by the always terrific Chiwetel Ejiofor, has distant echoes of the Forest Whitaker character in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Like that other character, he is a man who fiercely lives by his own values of teaching Southside Jiu-jitsu, not to pick a fight but to prevail and survive. His gym has faithful students such as L.A. cop Joe Collins (Max Martini) but never really earns enough of a profit for Mike and his wife, Sondra (Alice Braga). She in turn runs a fabric business that barely keeps the couple afloat financially while barking at him about his adherence to his own life code hindering their ability to make ends meet.
Then he meets a series of people that could potentially shatter through his guarded way of life. One is an emotionally distraught PTSD victim, Laura Black (Emily Mortimer), who accidentally rams the side of his truck and then, in a frenzy misunderstanding, takes Joe’s revolver and shoots out the gym’s front window. Upon the urging of Sondra, Mike goes to the nightclub owned by her brother, Bruno Silva (Rodrigo Santoro), to see about taking a loan. In that club, he then meets an action-movie star, Chet Frank (Tim Allen) who recklessly picks a fight and starts to get beaten by some men until Mike intervenes.
As all movies written and directed by Mamet progress, of course, not everyone in the film including a fight promoter, Marty Brown (Ricky Jay), Chet’s wife, Zena (Rebecca Pidgeon) and his producer, Jerry (Joe Mantegna) is who he or she seems to be and his trademark crisp dialogue always reflects that as if the characters are consistently worried that they are revealing something that can be used against them. His dramatic hook here, as was the case in one of his earlier films, The Spanish Prisoner, is to insert an unassuming protagonist into the web of deceit to force him to take drastic measures potentially to the detriment of their own morals, which, for Mike, is to enter a martial arts competition. While some may wonder how Mamet could graft this theme into the martial arts genre, it becomes hardly surprising ten minutes into the film how Mamet can graft his trademark themes onto the consistent trend of lone warriors marginalized by their insistence on following a noble code of conduct.
He has also found an ideal actor to play the central lead in Ejiofor, who is just about the most versatile actor working in movies right now. To see his work over the last several years in Dirty Pretty Things, Four Brothers, Children of Men, Talk to Me, and American Gangster is to watch a real chameleon of an actor who can absorb any accent or personality and interpreting Mamet’s dialogue (which includes the signature, repeated reinforcement of the beginning quote several times throughout) is but another acting challenge he meets and clears. Most importantly, he has enormous screen presence that he hardly has to rely on an emotional acting tic to convey this man who finds his abidance by his value system of decency turned and twisted against him.
Mamet often manages to bring out surprising dimensions within an actor and this time it is Tim Allen, who suppresses his goofball antics to give a highly effective performance as a middle-aged action celebrity. Mamet regulars Pidgeon and Mantegna also dot the screen as appropriately ambiguous figures, particularly Mantegna who can play a masterful, scheming manipulator as well as anyone. Emily Mortimer and Alice Braga similarly provide valuable support and the former in particular has a very good scene where, after admitting to Mike that her PTSD is due to her being recently raped at knifepoint, he shows her how to re-enact a physical defense tactic within the situation.
The characters and situations are very interesting for the first two acts that it is more than a little disappointing to see Mamet settle for the generic requirements of the martial arts genre in the third act. Perhaps Mamet meant it as a parody but whether the embrace of the hero’s morality is played sincerely or cynically, it comes at the expense of undermining everything the story has developed before. It does not help that Mamet’s shortcomings as a visual stylist shows most prominently here as he does not even bother trying to give the real sense of a fully crowded stadium in his camera angle choices.
So does two-thirds of a riveting film with an unsatisfactory conclusion make a worthwhile watch? I guess, for most people, it will come down to how much one enjoys Mamet’s skill in eloquent, succinct dialogue and the performances of the skilled actors that understand its rhythm. I tend to because I relish the genuine building of human suspense in deciphering what is said and unsaid. And because Ejiofor takes the character and makes it resonate beyond the fallacies of where his character ultimately ends up.
Bottom line: Well worth seeing.