Dir: David Mamet . US. 2008. 99mins.
Clearly a David Mamet film from its first line of dialogue, Redbelt exhibits many of the tenets of the playwright-film-maker's earlier efforts, although they find a novel new setting in the world of mixed martial arts. Some of Mamet's techniques have certainly lost their freshness, but buoyed by a terrific lead performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, this drama about personal integrity versus moral compromise and crass commercialism has more than enough smarts and philosophical underpinnings to compensate for familiarity in other regards.
This Sony Pictures Classic release opens in select cities on May 2 after its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and presents some intriguing marketing conundrums. Though set in the world of mixed martial arts, Redbelt will never be confused with the more action-oriented Never Back Down, which has pulled in over $27m worldwide. And while the film boasts a brief supporting role from bankable comedy lead Tim Allen, it's doubtful that fans of the Santa Clause franchise or Wild Hogs will flock to see him playing a dark, cynical Hollywood superstar.
At the box office, writer-director David Mamet has needed marquee names to reach beyond his loyal niche of core supporters: 2001's Gene Hackman-led Heist is his only film to gross more than $10m domestically. With Ejiofor as its lead, Redbelt looks to struggle. And considering that Mamet has greater success with US audiences, don't expect that his new film's limited Jiu-Jitsu fight scenes will reap significant foreign coin. Ancillaries won't be much of a kick, either.
Gulf War vet Mike Terry (Ejiofor) runs a Los Angeles Jiu-Jitsu academy that stresses the samurai's code of honour over superficial competition, but his lofty idealism can't keep his business from financial dire straits. His fortune seems to change, though, when he befriends Hollywood star Chet Frank (Allen) after rescuing him in a bar fight. Chet wants Mike to be a special consultant on the Iraq war film he's making, but Mike's involvement quickly becomes more complicated than he first realized.
Anyone familiar with previous Mamet con films such as House Of Games and The Spanish Prisoner can quickly infer that though the writer-director has moved to a new milieu, the setup is essentially the same: a bright, proud individual gets seduced by a charming, cultured schemer, whereby the victim comes to learn how naïve he or she really is in the ways of the world. But if the setup is familiar, the pleasures of Redbelt are in the mostly elegant execution of the con and how Mamet uses the honour code of martial arts to re-examine his old obsessions with self-deception and betrayal.
While Mamet's stylized, punchy dialogue occasionally approaches self-parody in Redbelt, Ejiofor handles the words with eloquence and conviction, allowing Mike to emerge as one of the film-maker's most organic creations. Mike's quest for ethical purity risks becomign insufferably self-righteous, but Ejiofor exudes such simple decency that he becomes a noble figure, which makes his later self-inflicted fall more tragic. Ejiofor has done superb supporting work in films such as Inside Man and Talk To Me, but in Redbelt he's the main attraction and the movie couldn't succeed without his calm, quiet dignity at its centre. Rather than being an idealized everyman, Mike is vulnerable to flattery and can be too proud of his principled stances, and Ejiofor and Mamet keenly show how even a decent man isn't immune to the petty temptations of the real world.
Admittedly, the setup and early stages of the elaborate con are more effective than several twists later involving an imbalanced attorney (Mortimer) and a film producer (Mantegna). And a few of Mamet's stable of recurring actors, particularly Ricky Jay, seem to be merely rehashing old verbal gimmicks to little effect.
But even with these limitations, Mamet's experience with Jiu-Jitsu, which he has studied for five years, imbues Redbelt's universe of training academies and fight promoters with a lived-in veracity that is entirely engrossing. As opposed to a shabby teen flick like Never Back Down, which uses mixed martial arts as a trendy excuse to update romantic-drama cliches, Redbelt posits Mike's Jiu-Jitsu passion as a metaphor for the individual's struggle to maintain personal ethics in a materialistic society.
Mamet tries to further debunk sports-movie conventions by concluding with an unconventional twist on the traditional showdown-in-the-ring finale, and while it doesn't entirely succeed, Redbelt's last moments stay true to its main character's stubborn integrity. Ultimately, the film doesn't record a knockout, but it earns enough points along the way to get the win.
Production company/worldwide distribution
Sony Pictures Classics