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Honorbound: David Mamet's Redbelt

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Sony Pictures Classic)

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Friday, May 02, 2008


Redbelt
Directed by David Mamet
(Sony Pictures Classics)

Reviewed by Justin Stewart

Docile when you want it to snarl, slovenly when you expect it tighten, Redbelt is a confounder. With the plot always hopscotching between foci, it’s as straightforward a “fight film” as Glengarry Glen Ross was a square account of the real estate biz. The movie’s stubbornness can work in its favor; when the enemy suddenly becomes the sinister entertainment-violence complex, writer/director Mamet can sink in with ravenousness. Redbelt’s lack of a sure foot also leads to its wan denouement, though, satisfying neither as a fulfillment of our wish to see ass kicked, nor as an edifying denial of that wish. If Mamet scripts and movies are there to be grappled and argued with — never perfect objects themselves but meant to somehow jolt you toward a more perfect understanding of the ideas they trade in — Redbelt’s on par with fare like Spartan and The Edge.

Probably half of Redbelt’s notices will attempt to tie it in to his recent piece for the Village Voice, “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-dead Liberal,’” in which he somewhat sloppily fessed to a disillusionment with the leftwing ideals he had been assuming without investigation or conviction. The essay seems rushed, its discoveries — humans are not good at heart, things just seem to work themselves out, NPR is annoying — humdrum. Mamet’s clout no doubt explains the lack of an editor’s hand, and the numerous plugs of his newest play, November. Seen as a rich ex-radical’s sellout or a sign of a worrisome trend, it set blogs and e-mailbags aflame, a footnote to the always-slippery Mamet ideology. The linkages to Redbelt will be a stretch — the movie is rather specifically indebted to Mamet’s five years of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu study combined with his oftentimes rancid dealings in the movie world, barbed essays about which he compiled in his Bambi vs. Godzilla book.

There’s nothing complex about Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mike Terry, because he has chosen to base his morals on the rigid dictates of the samurai’s code. He’s diverted his fighting skills into the running of a private gym, which provides a regular audience for his tactical advice and steady font of Mamet-deep, fully loaded platitudes like “There’s always an escape” and “Never dishonor the academy,” which we patiently wait to see put to the test outside of the gym. He shuns competition (it weakens the fighter) until a late night visit by a frantic, off-her-meds lawyer (Emily Mortimer) leads to a bullet-shattered window, a quest to Terry’s brother-in-law’s bar to finance its repair and an unexpected bar beatdown (delivered by Terry). The star (Tim Allen) and producer (Joe Mantegna) of a currently shooting war movie take notice and hire (as it turns out, exploit) Terry to lend his expertise and talent to the production. He tells them about a fight ritual involving three marbles — two white, one black — in a bowl. Drawing a white marble means nothing; a black means that one fighter gets a handicap, like a tied-back right arm. (They’re maybe the most morally heavy movie balls since Laurence Fishburne’s in Boyz n the Hood.) The moviemakers steal his idea, passing it on to roly-poly Ricky Jay as a sleazy promoter of Ultimate Fighting Championship-style mixed martial arts extravaganzas. Mortimer attempts to defend Terry with a lawsuit, but it’s thwarted, and the Terrys’ financial situation becomes so sticky that he’s eventually forced to shelve his code and enter the competition.

Ejiofor is reliably forceful. He looks sharp in a pair of slacks, and he manages to make the Mametian proselytizing sufferable and even powerful, the same trick he pulled in Dirty Pretty Things in the memorable “We are the people you do not see. We are the ones who drive your cabs. We clean your rooms and suck your cocks” speech. His samurai piety is balanced by the peccancy of the reprised House of Games crew of Mantegna and Jay (reusing says-it-all Mamet lines like “financialize the problem”) and Allen’s booze-bloated incarnation of turpitude. (Is it really surprising that he can nail unsavoriness?) They can all stand confidently in the same company as ethically bankrupt Mamet creations like Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry hope assassin and Danny Devito’s Heist worm. Slab of beef Randy Couture brings the mixed martial arts cred as an amoral commentator, while regulars Rebecca Pidgeon and David Paymer obligatorily round out the vile mix, the whole of which essentially adds up to a parody of the treacherousness that awaits anyone attempting to put up a fight in this life led by anything like a moral compass.

Mamet assembles such a delightful machine of assholes here that watching it becomes more fun than caring about Terry’s sober quest, and the climactic why-don’t-we-do-it-in-the-aisle showdown at the pay-per-view event loses coherency in the editing; it lacks the intimacy and stuntman-free smoothness of the opening fight school encounters. Watching Heist, you didn’t expect more than a meeting of Mamet dialogue and genre workout. Given his personal, spiritual connection to the world of Jiu-Jitsu, it’s a bit disappointing that Redbelt doesn’t go much beyond a redux of the same-old. The enjoyment’s in watching it not know what it wants.

 

 

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