David Mamet’s Redbelt, which opened the Tribeca Film Festival last week, is a tricky bar brawl—call it the Roundhouse of Games. The writer-director has scarcely abandoned his sense of the movies as an innately duplicitous medium, one best suited to stories that play out as conspiratorial chess matches. But, with his 10th feature—an entertaining tale of high-stakes martial arts—Mamet has infused the sleight of hand with a measure of two-fisted action.
Understatement is not part of the mix. The rhythm of the rain mixes with the rhythm of the drill as honorable instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an exponent of Brazilian jujitsu, teaches his prize pupil, a cop named Joe (Max Martini), how to fight with one hand bound: “There is no situation from which you cannot escape.” This assertive credo makes Mike a promising Mamet-movie protag; that the instructor’s pedagogical style is a nonstop torrent of hectoring advice mixed with color commentary suggests the filmmaker’s own faith in the power of language. (One of the most truculent literary figures to strut the American stage, Mamet may lack Norman Mailer’s intellectual brawn, but he suffers no deficiency of bluster.)
Still, as played by Ejiofor, Mike is open, straightforward, and almost sweet—a natural victim. His business is going broke, but he’s the calmest guy in the room, if not the most honest person on the entire planet. His modest storefront academy, which also houses a fabric business belonging to wife Sondra (Alice Braga), is an outpost of Zen clarity illuminating a bleak stretch of asphalt somewhere in West Los Angeles. Reality intrudes when an apparent junkie, Laura Black (Emily Mortimer)—driving through a monsoon menace looking for a drugstore to fill her dubious prescription—dents Mike’s parked car. Hysterically bursting into his dojo to apologize, she further freaks upon seeing the cop and, through some arcane form of movie magic, manages to fire his gun through the academy’s plate-glass window.
As illogically as this incident plays, it encapsulates the bizarre laws of cause and effect or action and reaction that govern the movie’s universe—everyone is at seeming cross-purposes until the final score-settling. Another bait-and-switch caper occurs when Mike visits his brother-in-law’s bar to get a bouncer pal some owed back pay and finds himself intervening in a fight to protect a big-time movie star (Tim Allen) out for a night of carousing . . . perhaps.
Mike and Sondra are subsequently invited to dine at the star’s mansion. One needs only a rudimentary familiarity with Mametian paranoia to sense that these suspiciously grateful swells are fitting Mike and the missus for some sort of noose. The Hollywood conspiracy is clinched the next day when Mike visits the set of the star’s new movie, nothing less than a re-creation of Operation Desert Storm produced by the sinister Jerry Weiss (Mamet axiom Joe Mantegna). Somehow, they’re thinking of bringing on Mike as an executive producer. But is it all a plot to force the honest samurai—who has hitherto been too pure to fight competitively—into the ring?
Cinema is a technology of deceit: No good deed goes unpunished; no bright idea remains unripped off; no one can be trusted. The movie, however, wears its honesty on its sleeve. As a director, Mamet favors unambiguous close-ups and uncluttered interiors; baddies frequent sleek offices, and chaos comes from dark rainy nights. Neither oppressive nor subtle in its symmetries, Redbelt is a cleanly constructed piece of work. The climactic fight scenes are notable less for their competent orchestration and stolidly ritualized weirdness than for their principled opposition to the HK hijinks of the past two decades.
In press notes so long, detailed, and repetitive they could only have been supervised by Mamet himself, the filmmaker is identified as a longtime student of, and purple belt in, jujitsu. Thus, Redbelt is a personal statement, as well as a sort of naturalized kung fu western and revisionist Popular Front boxing drama. There’s a hint of Golden Boy (the fighter’s innate sensitivity), a few allusions to The Set-Up (the fighter’s desperation, the tawdriness of his final bout), and a line (“Everybody dies”) ostentatiously swiped from the quintessential John Garfield flick, Body and Soul—if here contemptuously given to the evil producer.
Like the left-wing, largely Jewish writers of the ’30s and ’40s, Mamet identifies with the situation of a solitary fighter trapped by a corrupt system. In his case, however, the system isn’t capitalism so much as show business. Therein lies a paradox—Mamet attacks showbiz while surrendering to it. The tenets of Brazilian jujitsu may argue there’s no trap that cannot be escaped, but the rules of American entertainment insist on it.