Once again, Sony Classics has set out to prove that they can kill any movie they get their hands on. Following the pattern that proved so successful in ruining whatever chances House of Flying Daggers (2004) and The Jane Austen Book Club (2007) had of becoming modest “art-house” successes, they’ve taken David Mamet’s Redbelt and dropped it into three local theaters, thereby assuring its speedy demise by cutting the pie into too many pieces.
The shame of this is that Redbelt is a pretty good picture turned into something like a really good picture by virtue of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance. It is, however, an odd film, with a screenplay that won’t hold up to much scrutiny even while you’re watching the movie—never mind about later on.
That David Mamet wanted to make a mixed martial-arts action-drama is perplexing in and of itself. His audience isn’t likely to be all that well versed or interested in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu from either an action or a philosophical standpoint. And the audience that might be interested probably would be happier with another Never Back Down (2008), which this, thankfully, is not. Though this film does offer ample opportunity for any number of actors to drop the classic line from Never Back Down, “This can only end one way—with you looking like a bitch,” on Ejiofor’s character. And actually, in the land of Mamet, it wouldn’t sound all that out of place.
Ejiofor plays Mike Terry, a high-minded martial-arts instructor who’s also a terrible businessman. He runs his Jiu Jitsu academy on very strong principles, which is perhaps why he can’t seem to make a go of it, and why it’s up to his avaricious and unlikable wife, Sondra (Alice Braga, I Am Legend), to keep funneling money from her own business into it. Things are simply not good, and they get worse when a severely addled (and apparently pill-addicted) lawyer, Laura Black (Emily Mortimer), wanders onto the scene because she’s dented Mike’s car. For reasons that never make a lot of sense, after denting the car, she manages to accidentally fire star-pupil and policeman Joe Ryan’s (TV actor Max Martini) gun, shattering a car window. Ryan makes up a cock-and-bull story to cover for her, because otherwise, apparently, she’ll be charged with attempting to shoot a cop.
All of this serves to place Mike on the scene in a low-rent bar (run by Sondra’s brother) looking to borrow money to fix his car’s window. At the bar, Mike ends up rescuing movie-star Chet Frank (Tim Allen in a credibly unlikable performance) from some thugs wanting to prove that the actor’s not so tough off the screen. This act earns Frank’s supposed gratitude (oh, come on, this is Mamet; you know it’s bogus) and a coproducer job for Mike. The problem is that every time Mike tries to do the right thing, something bad happens with all the inevitability of Greek tragedy. The kicker is that it’s all too preposterous for words, and Mamet is actually using it all to get to an even more preposterous, but perfectly sincere, big martial-arts fight ending. Quite the most preposterous thing of all, however, is that it all somehow works.
Whether or not you quite buy into all of the martial-arts code-of-honor stuff, given the crooked sport that is competitive mixed martial arts (in this, Redbelt is about half an inch away from Speed Racer thematically), it’s hard not to believe in Ejiofor as Mike Terry. It’s almost equally hard not to succumb to the pleasures and permutations of the world of Mamet and its intelligent dialogue. You might feel “had” once you examine how the movie got to its final destination, but it’s a pretty sweet ride. Rated R for strong language.