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Movie reviews

Redbelt
I

In “Redbelt,” David Mamet has taken a sturdy B-movie conceit — a good man versus the bad world, plus blood — tricked it out with his rhythms, his corrosive words and misanthropy, and come up with a satisfying, unexpectedly involving B-movie that owes as much to old Hollywood as to Greek tragedy. That may sound like a perilous combination, but the film’s visual moderation, contained scale and ambition keep it well tethered. It’s a fight film, purely if not simply, which of course also means it’s about the struggle to live.

There is no struggle initially for Mike Terry (the excellent British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor), an almost messianic Los Angeles jujitsu instructor with a grave sense of purpose. With his mouthy wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), Mike runs a small Brazilian jujitsu academy in a nondescript part of town. He has money troubles, but also loyal students like Joe (Max Martini, strikingly effective), a cop with financial worries of his own. One evening, after an aggressive, tense class that ends with Joe locked in a chokehold by Mike’s oddly named assistant, Snowflake (Jose Pablo Cantillo), a stranger (Emily Mortimer as Laura) bursts into the academy. A gun discharges and trouble ensues (as it must), along with assorted and progressively contrived complications.

It’s easy to become distracted by these complicating factors, which include a pampered movie star, Chet Frank (Tim Allen); his wife, Zena (Rebecca Pidgeon, a k a Mrs. Mamet); and a producer, Jerry Weiss (Joe Mantegna, a Mamet regular). These characters collide with Mike’s world shortly after he saves Chet from a beating. (The star had gone slumming at a local dive.) Out of gratitude or perhaps curiosity, Chet invites Mike and Sondra to dinner at his mansion, where smiles and promises are served, along with an intoxicating intimation of friendship. In an exuberant moment, Mike tells the dinner party about one of his teaching methods, which requires one student to assume a handicap — say, by having an arm immobilized — before squaring off against an opponent.

His teaching method implies — or, rather, Mr. Mamet seems to be suggesting — that Mike’s arm is (figuratively) tied behind his back. On the surface, at least, he appears handicapped by money: a business check has bounced and one of the academy’s picture windows was shattered when that aforementioned gun went off. Yet Mike’s handicaps don’t register as internal, a function of psychology or a sad historical event; there is no dead kitten in his background, to invoke Mr. Mamet’s amusing metaphor for speeches that explain a character on the way to the denouement. In “Redbelt” a shot is fired, a window is broken, things happen. Action leads to action because, as Mr. Mamet writes in his dead-kitten riff, all that matters is “what happens next.”

That sounds persuasive, particularly if you know that Mr. Mamet is echoing Aristotle’s idea that tragedy is an imitation of action rather than of character. It’s also fascinating, nevermind that Aristotle wasn’t talking about how movies work. Even so, there’s something liberating about Mr. Mamet’s refusal to explain Mike, who registers as a given, much as an object does. Everything about the character exists right on the surface, in his graceful physicality, his sense of honor and his deeds. Mr. Ejiofor, a sympathetic presence with worried eyes, delivers his lines effectively and makes a plausible (at least to this admiring amateur) jujitsu master. He’s a pleasure to watch, even when there’s not much to see, in the character or on the screen.

That there’s not much to see, or not nearly enough, helps explain why “Redbelt” — the title refers to a belt denoting the pinnacle of expertise — never marshals its estimable parts, its exciting fight sequences and juicy side characters (playfully played by Ricky Jay, among others) into a transcendent whole. Although he exploits visual symbols effectively, that shattered window included, Mr. Mamet has yet to develop a filmmaking style that is anywhere near as expressive and effective as his writing. “You know the escape, you know the escape,” Mike hypnotically repeats to Joe during his tussle with Snowflake. Some time later, when Mike seems to have surrendered his principles, he will scan the room looking for the escape that, in a fundamental respect, will elude Mr. Mamet.


 

 

 

 

 

 


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