David Mamet is an anomaly among Broadway playwrights: In a stage career studded with Obies, Tonys, even a Pulitzer, he continues to ply an additional career writing and directing movies—he is certainly nothing if not a busy and prolific man. Redbelt is Mamet’s latest movie, and one of his more accessible ones, reflecting his five years of studying jujitsu—and to a lesser extent, his 21 years of swimming among the sharks in the Hollywood talent pool.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Mike Terry, the owner of a storefront jujitsu academy in the heart of Los Angeles. Mike has his devoted students, including officer Joe Collins (Max Martini) of the Los Angeles Police Department, but only a sporadic cash flow, which exasperates his wife Sondra (Alice Braga). The fact that Mike refuses to sully the purity of his calling by participating in his brother-in-law’s mixed-martial-arts fight business only adds to Sondra’s frustration.
Late one night, attorney Laura Black (Emily Mortimer), strung out and emotionally unstable, comes into the academy after sideswiping Mike’s car in the rain. There’s a confusing moment of misunderstanding that culminates in Laura grappling with Officer Joe’s service pistol and accidentally shooting out the big front window.
That same night, Mike chances into a bar where he uses his prowess to subdue a couple of drunken punks trying to carve up movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen). Chet’s gratitude, Laura’s morning-after remorse, a gold wristwatch and a querulous loan shark (David Paymer) will all combine in unexpected ways to inflame Mike’s money problems. Ultimately, he will be forced to step into the professional ring after all—ironically and tragically, his honor as well as his financial straits will demand it.
There’s something of the atmosphere of a Robert Altman film to Redbelt, both in the caliber of actors Mamet has attracted—in addition to those named, the movie also boasts Mamet favorites Joe Mantegna as Chet Frank’s oily producer, Rebecca Pidgeon as Chet’s wife, and Ricky Jay as a sleazy fight promoter—and in the sense of random events pinballing the plot in unexpected directions. But Mamet is less comfortable with the let’s-see-where-this-leads approach that made Altman’s best movies such exhilarating voyages of discovery (and his worst such ungodly messes). Where Altman would put the plot at the service of the characters, Mamet reverses the process with a firmly controlling hand. Where Altman would encourage his cast to improvise or write their own dialogue, Redbelt leaves little doubt as to where these words came from—everyone speaks in that flashy, muscular, archly mannered style that sounds so streetwise and colloquial, yet which we only seem to hear in David Mamet’s plays.
And through it all, there’s another thing that works against the film: a niggling sense that Mamet appears to believe he’s elevating a genre in which he deigns to work, an aura of condescension that’s more than a bit pretentious and off-putting. True, Redbelt is a better movie than, say, Never Back Down (in which Djimon Hounsou played a character not unlike Mike Terry here), but not by so much that Mamet can afford to put on airs.
Never Back Down followed a formula that dates back to the classic western Destry Rides Again, and Redbelt is comfortable with the same concept of the peace-loving individual forced to take a stand. In Mike Terry’s world, as in the worlds of many other movie heroes, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Mamet adds an element of a fickle, even treacherous, woman: Mike’s wife doesn’t quite say, “If you go out there, I won’t be here when you get back”—but in fact, she delivers on the threat without voicing it.
Actors love to chew on David Mamet’s dialogue, and his plays and movies therefore attract some of the best of them. As a director, Mamet tends to pace his actors deliberately, as if eager to make sure we hear every golden word, but he moves Redbelt at a sprightly clip for all that. The movie resolves itself in a moment of either ambiguity or indecision, depending on how you read it. But given the stalwart integrity Ejiofor has brought to Mike Terry throughout the film, it’s tough not to want his honor to prevail, and easy to persuade ourselves that it does.