Director: David Mamet
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Alice Braga, Emily Mortimer, Joe Mantegna, David Paymer, Ricky Jay, Max Martini,
Running Time: 99 min.
*** (out of ****)
One of the most promising projects on tap for this year was the intriguing matchup of acclaimed writer/director David Mamet and the world of mixed martial arts fighting. Mamet is a filmmaker who has long frustrated me. I really can’t name a single film he’s made that I didn’t like but he always seems to come out and hit a double or a triple. I keep waiting for that homer. That he still couldn’t do it even with material this strong tells me that maybe he never will.
I almost feel guilty giving Redbelt three stars because there are such flashes of brilliance in it and it’s so loaded with ideas that it feels like it's better. But it's not. Unfortunately, as is often the case with Mamet, the sum is greater than the whole of its parts and I have little doubt another filmmaker could have made a masterpiece out of this premise.
With all the ingredients he had to work with here, I’m kind of disappointed that Mamet reverted back to his same old routine. Even more frustrating is that this is the closest he’s come to breaking it and it’s one of his most interesting and ambitious endeavors in a while. It contains within it a tremendous lead performance and a shocking dramatic departure for an actor who shows us something we never knew he had in him. The last half-hour of the film is off the hook electrifying and reminds us that ending a movie properly has become a lost art that very few filmmakers have mastered. If the rest of this movie were as magnificent as the final twenty minutes this would be Mamet’s finest work.
That this very much feels like a Mamet film is both its greatest strength and biggest weakness. His trademarks are all over this: Sluggish pacing, talky dialogue, casting his favorite actors, a confusing con job. The difference this time is the underlying themes resonate so deeply that I almost felt at war with myself watching the picture. I admired bits and pieces greatly, but saw the potential for so much more. I don’t think it’s wrong to hold a filmmaker like Mamet to a higher standard and ask him to step out of his comfort zone a little more. If he did, the sky would have been the limit for Redbelt.
“There’s always an escape,” jujitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tells his pupils at his self-defense school. Its advice he would be wise to take himself when a series of events unfold that not only change his life but challenge his entire worldview. He’s a good, honorable man who prides himself on doing the right thing and ironically it’s that very quality that threatens to lead to his own undoing. He believes competition is the enemy and a weakening force in the warrior’s way of life, which is an obvious tip-off that before the film is over Mike will somehow be put into some situation where he’s forced to compete. His school is struggling to make rent and he must borrow from his wife Sondra (Alice Braga), who unlike her husband is managing a successful business. Mike’s primary concern is his star pupil, Joe (Max Martini), a police officer whom he’s determined to elevate to black belt level and impart his belief system on.
The convoluted plot is set into motion when on a rainy night a nervous, distraught woman named Laura (Emily Mortimer) enters the studio and in a panic accidentally fires Joe’s gun breaking the front window. It can be replaced but the financial damage is done and it’s too much of a burden for Mike to bare. Luckily, he finds his way out after a chance encounter with Hollywood action star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) who he rescues from a volatile bar fight. Chet wants to re-pay him but immediately we suspect his motives may be questionable and, as typical in a Mamet film, so may be the motives of just about anybody else when money is on the line.
Why is Chet being so nice to him? Why was the suspicious and unstable Laura even at his studio that night? What are officer Joe’s motives? I’d love to be able to tell you the answers to these questions are even more intriguing than you could imagine, but remember, this is a Mamet film. The answers are fairly clunky and obvious and it takes a lot of talking in circles to get there. No one could convince me the plot of this movie is any different than House of Games or The Spanish Prisoner and that’s the biggest disappointment. All the Mamet regulars are back including Joe Mantegna as a sleazy film producer, Ricky Jay as a greedy fight promoter, David Paymer as a loan shark and of course Mamet’s own wife Rebecca Pidgeon has a small role as Chet Frank’s spouse. They’re all fine, even if they’re essentially just going through the motions of all their previous roles in his films.
The real draw is the underlying issues Mamet addresses with his con job this time. He risks going a little deeper thematically in this effort, questioning just how much a man’s honor and dignity can distance him from a society that’s just getting greedier. In this election year it’s a timely topic, and one he’s smart to link to corruption in sports and the battle between art and commerce in Hollywood, a battle art is losing. It’s never treated heavy-handedly and ingrains itself into the fabric of the story, but I just wish the story were better.
I wanted things to escalate and become more important, or at live up to the themes introduced. Some would call this plot complicated or far-fetched. It’s complicated but I wish it were more far-fetched. That’s the problem with every one of Mamet’s pictures. They’re almost too realistically grounded and he thinks he can make them mean more through clever dialogue and sly performances. Then he ends up looking like a fool when the big reveal comes and it isn’t all that big.
All of his films lack forward movement and energy and he tries to make up with it by being a wordsmith. Just once, I’d like to see him completely let go of his usual formula and fly off the rails just to see what would happen. In the last half hour he flirts with it and the results are amazing. If the events that led up the film’s fascinating philosophical approach and moving finale meant more this could have been a masterpiece. You could argue it SHOULD have been. But instead Mamet settles, like he always does. His films are preoccupied with looking smart rather than dazzling us.
What holds this whole enterprise together though is the powerful performance of Ejiofor, a respected supporting player in films like Children of Men, here is asked for the first time to carry the entire load, and does he ever, with laser-like intensity. He’s so believable as a martial arts instructor, yet even more credible as a man whose honor is being tested at every turn. This film would not have succeeded if an actor this subtle hadn’t been cast as the lead. But the biggest acting surprise for me was the impressive dramatic work of Tim Allen. Yes, THAT Tim Allen. I know, I can't believe it either.
As an arrogant, hard drinking, womanizing action star Allen does the finest work of his career and it made me wonder whether his lightweight reputation as a performer has more to do with the projects he’s picking rather than any lack of talent. He should be commended for stretching like this and not only having the confidence to take the risk, but for pulling it off so well. In just a few scenes he implies a history for this over-the-hill action star that’s leagues more interesting than the con job Mamet crafts.
Hopefully this got the attention of casting directors as to what Allen can do and it will lead to better roles for him. If the kid from 3rd Rock From The Sun can emerge as one of our best actors then I see no reason why the guy from Home Improvement can’t try his hand at dramatic roles. In fact, one of the film’s biggest problems is that Allen isn’t in it enough. I wanted him to break out and play an even larger role in the story, but since this is a Mamet film, he must play the underwritten part as is and isn’t given any more to do. Mamet’s scripts are like finely tuned machines and they leave no room for flexibility. As a result, every one of his pictures not only feels the same, but like low rent versions of David Fincher’s The Game without the excitement or clever plot twists.
That’s why the closing 30 minutes feel so fresh, as it pays off the intriguing visual on the film’s poster showing us how this guy found himself in the middle of an MMA fight in street clothes. And the last scene is perfection. The only other movie I can think of this year that’s closing minutes were as strong was In Bruges. That’s good company to be in. Since the ending will always be the last thing people remember it’s important to make it count. At least Mamet understands that. So, is it fair of me to judge the movie that could have been rather than the one that is? Maybe, but as usual, greatness was within Mamet’s grasp and he let it slip away. But at least this time he bothered to give me interesting issues to think about when the movie was over. Redbelt doesn’t fulfill its promise, but it’s a fascinating watch nonetheless.