Putting his celebrated theater credentials aside, David Mamet essentially has two Hollywood personas: Mamet the screenwriter and Mamet the filmmaker. And the gulf in quality between the two can be pretty dramatic.
Mamet the screenwriter likes to deconstruct well-trodden film genres into his own self-conscious brand of stylized dialogue and narrative sleight-of-hand. No matter what kind of movie he's paying homage to, it's inevitable that an elaborate con and the unwritten code of manly behavior are at the heart of his story. Though the seams always threaten to pop, his tales have an internal and intimate logic that keeps them from falling apart. Movies like Things Change, House Of Games and State And Main have so much pluck, style and ingenuity that you're willing to forgive their convolutions and contrivances.
Mamet the filmmaker, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. It's one thing to craft an interesting tale, it's quite another to effectively tell it in a visual medium. And though he lacks nothing for inspiration, Mamet has neither the raw talent nor practiced craft to serve his ambitions. His camera often moves in too close when it should pull back, cuts away when it should hold the shot. He struggles to create an effective mis-en-scene in his movies and seems incapable of tracking anything more energetic than a stroll across the room. In other words, David Mamet is probably the last person who should be shooting a David Mamet film. But for the incredible casts he attracts, Mamet's movies would probably go straight to DVD.
Redbelt is no exception. Ostensibly an olde tyme boxing flick, Mamet's love letter to martial arts — namely, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu — employs a classic Hollywood formula: A reluctant and virtuous fighter is backed into a corner until he's forced to raise his fists and do what's right. But for a film like this to succeed, it must draw the audience into the drama of its story and the fight. Mamet's rickety and elaborate film mostly accomplishes the first but fails miserably at the second.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, Talk to Me) stars as Jiu-jitsu instructor Mike Terry, who teaches cops and citizens alike in his bare-bones L.A. academy. A man of honor and decency, he is the consummate pacifist-warrior, believing that martial arts competitions are "weakening" and that there is no situation you cannot escape from. Unfortunately, this philosophical purity has impoverished his studio and left his wife (Alice Braga) to fret about the bills.
When a troubled young lawyer (a wasted Emily Mortimer) stumbles into the studio one night, she causes an accident that sets off an improbable chain of events. Before you know it, Terry has earned the favor of a burned-out action film star (Tim Allen) and his slick producer (Joe Mantegna) as his wife's struggling fashion business draws the interest of their Hollywood wives. Inevitably, Terry's trusting nature is diabolically exploited and he's pushed toward the very competition he's so devoutly shunned.
At its core, Redbelt is a moralizing and overly serious "adult" version of The Karate Kid. Mamet slyly injects his trademark ideas about social politics — America's brazen exploitation of culturally pure traditions, how men of honor are easy prey for the corrupt and greedy — into the story. But it's not enough to overcome Mamet's sloppy plotting. Though there are intriguingly subtle allusions to our current war in Iraq — don't confuse the purity of our warriors for the dishonesty of our leaders — his parable collapses under the weight of too many characters, too many ill-defined agendas and cons that rely more on contrivance than logic. Think of it as Rocky meets a low-rent version of The Spanish Prisoner (a similarly twisty Mamet tale).
Ultimately, everything in Redbelt builds to the final fight, where we finally see Terry in all his martial arts glory. And Mamet botches it. Despite a clever conceit that keeps his hero's virtuous disdain for competition unsullied, the final confrontation lacks drama, energy or style. Instead we get a chaotic grapple that amounts to little more than two guys hugging each other — really hard. Worse, Mamet doesn't know whether to focus on the struggle or the crowd, and so we get an unmotivated mix of the two. The finale, no doubt meant to stir our sense that honor has been justly rewarded, is so laughably conceived you'll long for Rocky's heartfelt shouts of "Adrienne! Adrienne!"
What almost makes Redbelt worth watching is Ejiofor's compelling character study of honor, gullibility and slowly crumbling steadfastness. He's both convincing as a man of action and captivating as a pure soul whose values are squeezed to the breaking point. Mamet puts the screws to this guy, and despite all the film's flaws, we really care — Ejiofor is that good. It helps, of course, that he's surrounded by a first-rate cast, which includes Mamet stalwarts Mantegna and Ricky Jay, as well as Mortimer and Allen (in his most interesting role in years).
Still, for all Redbelt's pedigree, I prefer the Karate Kid stylings of Mr. Miyagi's "Wax on, wax off." Daniel-San's final Standing Crane kick alone was worth the price of admission.
Opens this weekend at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.