Theatrical Review: David Mamet
is a difficult guy to figure. His latest film, Redbelt, which he wrote and directed, is perhaps his most confounding project yet. That's not to say it's not enjoyable -- at its best, Redbelt is twisty, heady, butt-kicking fun -- but it's hard to recognize the writer of Glengarry Glen Ross as the man behind a film set in the mixed martial arts (MMA) subculture. Sure, the world of MMA fighting is fertile territory for Mamet's twin obsessions -- masculinity and domination -- but seriously... MMA? I've seen some MMA bouts in my day, and those guys don't look capable of speechifying the way Mamet's character's do. And yet somehow, in ways past reckoning, Redbelt manages to be pretty darn entertaining, even, in some parts, affecting.
Let me quickly establish some caveats. Redbelt is one of the most unapologetically macho movies made in the last several years, and the story ultimately buckles under the weight of its earnestness. The plot is constructed on the theme of warrior culture, personified by the lead character Mike Terry, played soulfully by Chiwetel Ejiofor
(American Gangster, Dirty Pretty Things), who seems incapable of anything short of brilliance. Terry is a mixed martial arts instructor who lives his life by a code. His ethos is never really explained, but it clearly involves things like honor, integrity, and a bunch of other quiet, old-fashioned virtues most people don't think too much about. But Terry has a problem: Despite a loyal stable of disciples, his gym doesn't make any money and he has to do something to dig his way out of debt. Article continues below
Terry refuses to raise money by competing in an upcoming MMA tournament -- competition is against his belief system. Instead he reluctantly turns to a loan shark (David Paymer), at the insistence of his wife (Alice Braga
). It looks like everything is going to work out when Hollywood action star Chet Frank (Tim Allen
) enters the scene and offers Terry a job as a consultant on his latest movie, but it's at this point that Mamet's typical crosses and double-crosses begin to multiply, forcing Terry to question his principled stand against formal competition.
The whole enterprise wouldn't work at all without Ejiofor's marvelous performance. Terry's ethos is so unyielding, anachronistic, and at times unbelievable that without Ejiofor's subtle righteousness the movie would have failed at launch. As it is, Redbelt works its hypermasculine charms right up to the conclusion, when the ponderousness of Terry's philosophy brings the whole edifice crashing down in a heap of testosterone-fueled backroom brawling.
Mamet deserves some credit for the slickness of the plot he constructs. His scripts often suffer from being overly clever. Incomprehensible plot twists emerge from nothingness with the sole purpose of inveigling the viewer into believing that he or she is witnessing narrative genius. But not so here. Character motivations are intelligently established and each turn and betrayal feels rooted in the film's internal logic.
It's easy to deride a movie like Redbelt. Admittedly, some derision is probably deserved. Its main character is like a superhero, a lone crusader with a sincere belief in the goodness of people, pitted against the dark forces of greed, power, and lust for acclaim. But the movie's simplistic worldview is also part of its charm. Redbelt features a reluctant hero mopping the floor with bad guys -- not because he wants to, but because he has to -- and it's been a long time since I've seen a thoughtful movie like that. Sure, it occasionally swerves into cheesiness and its ending is several measures over the top, but Redbelt's also good, smart, manly entertainment.