David Mamet’s Redbelt is about a martial-arts teacher who prefers not to fight. It’s a matter of principle, the code of a jujitsu master, and the paradox involved is at the heart of the film’s most dramatic elements.
Mamet is still known primarily as a playwright, but he has also had a substantial output as a writer-director of feature films—this is his 10th since debuting with House of Games in 1987—and the new work, however uneven, is one of his most distinctively cinematic creations.
Redbelt has some typical Mamet stuff in it: criminals and con men, some tough talk and a few twists of film noir, oddball suspense and a zigzagging plot, assorted quirky takes on male pride, the battle of the sexes, and clashing codes of honor. But it is also somewhat atypical in that script and dialogue are not foremost among its strengths, which here are more a matter of the pared-down intensity of the cinematic staging and the brisk, efficient dynamics of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s multifaceted performance in the central role.
Mike Terry (Ejiofor) is the paradoxical martial-arts instructor at the center of the storm of Mamet’s wildly elaborated plot, and in the end his vigorous calm and hyperkinetic authority are most of whatever proves at least partly true, and definitely engaging, in the feverish course of Redbelt‘s convoluted tale.
In summary form, that tale inevitably sounds bloated and cumbersome: Ejiofor’s Terry gets variously involved with an oddball lawyer who is also an assault victim (Emily Mortimer); a troubled cop (Max Martini) who is one of his students; a movie star (Tim Allen) whom he rescues from a bar brawl; a movie producer (Mamet regular Joe Mantegna) with assorted shady connections; a local gambler (David Paymer) and some devious promoters of mixed-martial-arts events; and a sprawling clan of Brazilians to whom he is related via the dressmaker and energetic schemer who is his wife (Alice Braga). And that’s without even mentioning the hidden agendas and double-crosses that crop up in all this.
A lot of that, and perhaps too much of it, turns out to be mere dramatic backdrop, a thicket through which Mike Terry, with his self-defense-oriented samurai code, must battle for whatever might still be of value as the double-crosses and assorted other treacheries begin falling into place around him. Ejiofor’s dazzling combination of character acting and martial-arts moves brings it all home, for better or worse.