Highbrow takes a pounding in Mamet’s martial arts drama
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by David Mamet
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Emily Mortimer, Tim Allen
Oh, great, just what we need: another cheap action film to exploit the sudden popularity of mixed martial arts. Wasn’t Never Back Down enough shirtless teenage beefcake for one season? Do we really need another MTV-sanctioned martial arts film that ... wait a second. Was that David Mamet’s name on the credits? The David Mamet? And what’s up with this cast? Award-winning British actors Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things) and Emily Mortimer (Lovely & Amazing)? A who’s-who of New York stage actors (Joe Mantegna, David Paymer, Rebecca Pidgeon)? A busload of real-life fighters (Randy Couture, Ray Mancini, Jean Jacques Machado)? And ... did that just say Tim Allen? What the hell’s going on here?
Redbelt is, to say the least, an unusual film to see written and directed by the man who gave us House of Games, Glengarry Glen Ross, Vanya on 42nd Street, Oleanna, American Buffalo, The Spanish Prisoner and a bunch of other twist-filled, profanity-laced films and stageplays. What is he doing writing a straightforward martial arts action film? Well, for starters, Redbelt is anything but that.
Ejiofor headlines the crowded cast as Mike Terry, an instructor of jujitsu struggling to make ends meet in Los Angeles. Mike is noble to a fault, believing martial arts should be used for defense, protection and strengthening mind and body—never for such self-aggrandizing commercial pursuits as competing in tournaments. (“A competition is not a fight,” he counsels.) As a result, Mike’s got to keep his tiny storefront studio afloat with regular loans from relatives of his Brazilian wife (Alice Braga, Sonia Braga’s niece), most of whom seem to be engaged in rather shady activities.
One night, Mike stumbles into a bar fight between a famous actor named Chet Frank (Tim Allen, giving surprisingly good drama) and a drunk dude with a knife. Mike disarms the fellow in quick time, earning the appreciation and admiration of Chet. As it turns out, Chet is shooting a Gulf War movie and believes our former Marine, Mike, could add some hard-core veracity to his performance. Looks like Mike’s life is finally turning around.
Being a Mamet film, however, we keep waiting around for the fix to come in. Surely somebody’s trying to rip-off, double-cross or otherwise screw someone else in this narrative. There are an awful lot of plot threads to follow, including a crooked fight promoter (Mamet reg Ricky Jay), a troubled police officer training at Mike’s studio (Max Martini from Mamet’s TV series “The Unit”) and a panic-prone lawyer who stumbles in out of the rain one fateful night (Mortimer, always reliable). Untangle them, though, and there’s some solid tension to be had.
Basically, all these various plot threads are pushing our increasingly harried and impoverished hero toward taking part in a $50,000 martial arts tournament. It seems like an awfully conventional wrap-up, one that’s been a genre staple in everything from Enter the Dragon to The Karate Kid to Bloodsport to the above-mentioned Never Back Down. But Mamet manages to turn even that on its head, providing a modicum of the promised fisticuffs, but delivering them in a most unexpected manner. Though it features a few impressive takedowns, most of the combat here is of the moral and philosophical kind, an epic ground-and-pound for Mike’s soul.
Mamet’s work has always explored the dark side of masculinity, and he’s apparently a big fan of mixed martial arts. Redbelt is certainly one of the most realistic uses of mixed martial arts in film to date. But it’s hard to tell exactly what kind of audience will take to this mulligan stew of literate dialogue, dense plotting and occasional pressure-point grappling. Strip it down to its essentials and you could say Redbelt plays out like Rocky as written by a Tony- and Academy Award-nominated writer. But Rocky was fighting for his working-class pride. Mike is fighting for what ultimately appears to be an obscure case of copyright infringement. (No, really.) Redbelt is a skilled examination of manly honor, but Mamet may actually have succeeded in making an action film that’s too smart for its own good.