Redbelt(5/9/2008)

            Mixed Martial arts, a recent combat oriented sport, has gained popularity as a hyped up form of kickboxing.  The sport combines elements of jiu-jitsu, wrestling, boxing, and Brazilian kickboxing.  The extreme nature of the sport has elicited multiple; some see it as a highly tactical form of athleticism while others like Senator John McCain have dismissed it as “human cockfighting.”  Personally I think MMA as a spectator sport is a rather tedious fad that will soon go the way of televised Texas Hold ‘em.  Unlike that fad however, Hollywood is putting out their cinematic tie-ins in a timely manner.  Two months ago the critically panned Never Back Down came out, a good indication of the wave of films to come cashing in on the fad.   But, then it was announced that another MMA related film was coming from none other then the great David Mamet.  Despite my general disinterest in MMA, I’m always up for some Mamet, so I went in to Redbelt with fairly high expectations.

            The film centers on Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a jiu-jitsu instructor in Las Angeles who believes sincerely in a certain code of honor in his martial art.  Terry does not view combat as a sport and he looks down on competitive MMA.  Terry is married to a Brazilian tailor named Sondra (Alice Braga) and is currently training a police officer named Joe Ryan (Max Martini).  Early in the film a mentally unbalanced lawyer (Emily Mortimer) comes into Terry’s dojo and over-reacts when Ryan tries to help her, she grabs his gun and accidentally shoots out a window.  Since Terry is in debt, he needs to take out a loan in order to pay for a new window so he goes to meet a loan shark friend of his, and at this bar he runs into a movie star named Chet Frank (Tim Allen) just as he’s about to get beaten up in a bar fight.  Terry saves Frank and he offers a helping hand to him, unfortunately this leads to even greater layers of cons, twists, and betrayal.

            David Mamet is a playwright turned filmmaker that I’m a huge fan of.  He won a Pulitzer for his play “Glengarry Glen Ross”, which was eventually tuned into a great film by Dan Foley.  Mamet eventually tuned to adapting his own plays and then started writing directly for the screen.  I’m a big fan of Mamet’s last film, Spartan, which I believe to be one of the most tragically overlooked films of recent years.  In many ways I think Redbelt is something of a companion piece to Spartan, perhaps not deliberately so but both films feel like parts of a stage in the auteur’s body of work.

            Mamet has moved on from the type of super fast paced dialogue that made him famous, but the dialogue is still clearly Mamet’s.  Here, and especially in Spartan, Mamet has found unique ways of handling exposition, mainly by ignoring it; Mamet instead trusts the audience to figure out what’s going on without the characters explaining it to them.  This is less noticeable here than it was in Spartan, but it still works.  For example, Terry’s lawyer friend is seen early on trying to get into a pharmacy then goes into Terry’s dojo looking noticeably disturbed.  A lesser director would have followed this with a character explaining exactly what mental disorder she suffers from and a detailed explanation of her relationship with Terry.  Mamet, however, realizes why this is unnecessary and decides to simply allow the audience figure this out for themselves.

            There’s a trick I’ve noticed Mamet using a lot recently where he compares the action onscreen to historical traditions.  This was used in The Spanish Prisoner where the con onscreen is compared to a similar con from the 15th century.  His screenplay to Ronin compared cold war spies turned mercenaries to ronin samurai who wandered Japan looking for work after their masters die.  The quintessential example of this trick could be found in the central speech in Spartan where the film’s entire plot is described but in the terms of a medieval setting.  Redbelt uses this trick more than any of Mamet’s previous films, as it is no longer a single scene metaphor; here ancient traditions are of essential importance to the story and especially the principles of the Mike Terry character.

            These Principles are a big part of what makes Mike Terry such an interesting character.  Terry follows a certain code of honor in the way he conducts himself; but what he calls honor others may simply call not selling out.  A running theme in Mamet’s films, especially his recent ones, is that of a principled character trying to do good within the cutthroat environments of the rich and/or powerful.  This was the main point of Spartan, and it was even present in a comedic way in State and Main.  Mike Terry is the perfect character to put at the center of such a plot, he has a code of honor that seems positively quaint to the moguls and movie stars he runs into, but at the same time he never comes off as an anachronistic lunatic like the title character of Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.  Terry is well aware of his place in the modern world and the consequences of his priorities.

            This fascinating character is brought to life in a big way by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s really good performance.  Ejiofor is one of the best emerging character actors of recent memory and he’s been on a role recently with roles in films like Talk to Me and American Gangster.  Ejiofor brings an invaluable sense of dignity to Mike Terry without which he would not have worked on screen.  In a lesser actor’s hands Terry’s speeches about honor would have come off like cheesy relics of bad kung Fu movies and would have undermined the whole film, but Ejiofor makes them work.

            The rest of cast feels like a course in Mamet casting 101, and that is not a bad thing.  Firstly, Mamet’s three regulars are in play: Ricky Jay is the film’s corporate villain, Rebecca Pidgeon has a small role, as does Joe Mantegna.  Also present is Tim Allen of all people, trying to pull the same trick as Steve Martin pulled in The Spanish Prisoner by playing against type in a David Mamet film.  Other less famous actors also do a great job; Emily Mortimer and Alice Braga both adapt to Mamet dialogue very well, and Max Martini is good as well. 

            I’ve said a lot of good things about this movie because there are a lot of good things in it; unfortunately they’re never quite assembled right.  In many ways the film suffers greatly from a poor macguffin, I don’t really want to give this away (even if the spoilerific trailer already did), but it has the problem of being something that just isn’t worth this much trouble to get.  The people seeking this Macguffin go to great (and often illegal) lengths to get it when they could have just as easily just bought it, they’re rich they can afford it.  This could have in fact been part of the film’s message about the lengths greedy people will go to get what they want, but it’s hard for me to believe that even Mamet can be cynical enough to believe even the greediest millionaire will do all this to save two hundred thousand dollars.

            Really, in many ways I wish Mamet had just stuck to making a movie about honor rather than getting stuck in the middle of what is in many ways a second rate con artist plot.  The twists don’t really amount to as much as they should and the character story is more interesting the whole time.  What’s more this con is somewhat muddled and by the end is never fully realized or explained.  In many ways this fits with his pattern of avoiding exposition, but I think a clearer explanation or one more twist to fully explain the situation was probably necessary.  However, though this major flaw is there to be found, it never feels like as big a problem as it should be because Mamet replaces it with things that are even more interesting, like a final ending which could be interpreted as either a triumph of the human spirit or as a cynical stunt that will ultimately help the villains more then it hurts them, if only it had also provided closure to the story it would have been perfect.

            This one is a really close call, as a Mamet-head I found more than enough here to make it worth my time simply to watch the evolution of this important auteur even though the film didn’t really quite work on an objective level.  But for non-Mamet freaks this is a much more iffy proposition.  The performances are good, the dialogue and general filmmaking are also good, as are the themes and messages, but unfortunately the story never really works.  But even if the story doesn’t work there was more than enough fun to be had along the way that I had my money’s worth, unfortunately I’m not sure that non-Mamet-heads will be a lot less interested or forgiving.

**1/2 out of Four

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