Movie Review: ‘Redbelt’ a heavyweight in action genre
Writer-director David Mamet might be most famous for his salty, crackling dialogue, but fittingly, the man who penned “Glengarry Glen Ross” is a hell of a salesman.
Both skills come into play in his newest movie, but it’s the latter that elevates “Redbelt” above the fray. It’s disheartening to think what “Redbelt” could have been in the hands of lesser director, lacking Mamet’s ability to sell unlikely plot contrivances ” “The Karate Kid” for adults, or maybe worse, a corny martial arts movie.
Of course, Mamet’s trademark caustic, staccato dialogue helps keep “Redbelt” grounded and believable while the characters mull concepts like honor and purity in the realm of mixed martial arts.
Perhaps unbelievably, that’s just what “Redbelt” is ” a movie for thinking adults that revolves around jujitsu and mixed martial arts. If that seems like an unlikely hybrid, Mamet’s sales job has only begun: He’s still got a lot more moral swampland to sell you.
The movie centers around jujitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, dropping his native British accent to play a Gulf War vet in L.A.), who counts soldiers and police among his clientele but refuses to compete in mixed martial arts for the sake of purity. It isn’t so much Mike’s stance that has him in increasingly hot water with his Brazilian wife, Sondra (actress Alice Braga), but rather that business isn’t booming for Mike, and her brother happens to be a fight promoter.
Two chance meetings challenge Mike’s resolve not to fight. One is an unfortunate encounter between Mike’s policeman student Joe Ryan (actor Max Martini) and high-strung but coming-unglued attorney Laura Black (actress Emily Mortimer). The other involves a fistfight fight at the club Sondra’s brother runs, circulating around Hollywood actor Chet Frank (played by Tim Allen).
It’s here that Mamet’s strength as a salesman comes into play, making contrivances that would be hard to swallow from the hand of a hack palatable, if not always believable. Weirdly enough, the air of disbelief that surrounds the net of circumstances that pull Mike closer to the dark side give the plot more resonance: Could it really be a net of unlikely coincidence that has snared Mike, or is it a wide-ranging conspiracy worthy of Mamet’s own “Heist” or “Spartan”?
Other critics have called “Redbelt” Mamet’s best screen adaptation, and it’s in exploring Mike’s predicament that he shows his skill. There’s a lot more ideas bouncing around “Redbelt” than other fight movies, and Mamet doesn’t tie every possibility together into an Oliver Stone ending. Some dead ends remain just that.
That said, the bow Mamet eventually wraps around the ending is a little neat for the bloody, sweaty, dirty world of mixed martial arts. But with the hard-won combination of realistically bloody violence, red herrings and dialogue left unsaid, Mamet sure can close the deal.