Redbelt

Redbelt

****1/2

Reviewed by: The Exile

With Redbelt, David Mamet’s first film since 2004’s Spartan, the director pits the sleazy world of fight promotion against the honour code of a simple martial-arts instructor. Essentially a distillation of Mamet’s fascination with the strategies we employ to avoid being played, Redbelt articulates its greed-versus-good theme with a pared-down aesthetic and fat-trimmed screenplay. Though this can sometimes leave us floundering in unanswered questions, the end result is an exhilarating example of Mamet the philosopher, the storyteller and the craftsman.

Centering on a financially strapped jiu-jitsu instructor named Mike Terry (a magnificent Chiwetel Ejiofor), the story slowly ensnares him in a web of moral and physical threat. His rundown West Los Angeles academy is bouncing cheques, his snippy wife (Alice Braga) is bitching about his lack of success and dependence on her textiles business, and his shady Brazilian brothers-in-law want him to fight in a tournament they’re promoting. Believing that competition both weakens and demeans a martial artist, Mike would rather borrow money than fight for it; but when a violent incident incurs more unexpected expense, the cost of his integrity may have become too high.

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As Mike’s situation becomes exponentially more perilous, Mamet introduces a typically diverse cast of characters. An emotionally fragile young lawyer with a tragic reason for learning self-defense (Emily Mortimer); a troubled cop who’s using his black-belt studies to avoid his own marital issues (a terrific Max Martini); and a hard-drinking movie star who seems to be offering Mike a way out of his problems (a surprisingly effective Tim Allen). Mamet regulars Ricky Jay and Joe Mantegna are also around to display their well-honed familiarity with their director’s idiosyncratic rhythms. In the larger of the two roles, Mantegna is particularly memorable as a fast-talking movie producer whose intentions are as blurred as his morals.

Beautifully shot in rich, clean frames by Robert Elswit, Redbelt offsets its convoluted plot — involving an accidental shooting and a hot Rolex — with straightforward camerawork and unfussy performances. Mamet spent five years training with a jiu-jitsu master, and the fight sequences are presented in brief, intense snippets that never overwhelm the story or the characters. Anchoring the action is Ejiofor, who imparts a miraculously still, centered quality to Mike’s attempts to extricate himself from his problems. Though forced to spend most of the movie at bay, his worried expression never disturbs the fluidity of his movements or precision of his line delivery.

Both gripping morality tale and satisfying thriller, Redbelt transposes the classic hero’s journey to the down-and-dirty arena of fixed fights and back-room bribes. For once, Mamet’s dialogue is virtually devoid of trickery, with none of the machine-gun staginess of House Of Games and Glengarry Glen Ross. More interested in entertaining his audience than baffling it, the director has created a central con whose solution is less important than Mike’s ability to prevail against it, and in doing so has tapped into the vein of suspense that made films like Homicide and Heist so gratifying.

Sophisticated and invigorating, Redbelt is a mature study of one man’s ethics in the face of extraordinary pressure. “If you’re correct in the small things, then you’ll be correct in the larger things,” Mamet once said. He was talking about directing, but he could just as easily have been describing Mike’s moral compass.

Reviewed on: 03 Sep 2008
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Redbelt packshot
A martial arts instructor who has avoided prize-fighting to maintain his ethical code, finds debt may force him into the ring.
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Director: David Mamet

Writer: David Mamet

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Alice Braga, Emily Mortimer, Max Martini, Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Rodrigo Santoro, Cyril Takayama, Randy Couture

Year: 2008

Runtime: 99 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

Tribeca 2008

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