I’m not too familiar with the directorial works of David Mamet. I know him by his reputation as a writer, where he has been responsible for such impressive scripts as The Untouchables and Glenglarry Glen Ross. So Redbelt marks the first film I’ve seen where Mamet is at the helm, and it didn’t take long for it to get me interested in his previous works. I liked the way he tells his story. He lets it go in unexpected directions and although the movie doesn’t always work (the ending in particular), you can at least admire and appreciate a filmmaker that tries to mix things up a bit, especially with material that in lesser hands could easily rub off as trite and clichéd.
The way Mamet constructs his script is interesting. It doesn’t really follow a straightforward story, but rather a different formula. Something happens, Mamet builds off of it, then the story takes a turn in another direction and Mamet starts building off of that. Somehow, he finds just enough glue to hold things together and make the film work. He hasn’t made a great movie, but he has avoided making a predictable one.
As the title suggests, Redbelt revolves around the world of martial arts. Redbelt is the ranking above a black belt, showing that the one who wears it is a true master. Chiwetel Ejiofor (Talk to Me), who is quickly moving towards the upper echelon of African American actors, plays Mike Terry, a blackbelt instructor at a local jujitsu academy. Mike does what he loves and knows best, but is struggling to make ends meet. His wife, Sondra, is played by Alice Braga (that other human in I Am Legend), and she manages the finances for her husband.
There is an upcoming fighting tournament and the grand prize is $50,000, but that’s not the main plot detail. Mike meets a few interesting characters, and each one he meets seems to give him more financial problems. For instance, one of the supporting players gives Mike a gold watch and instead of pawning it himself, he gives it to his friend and protégé, Joe Ryan (Max Martini), a police officer also in financial debt. But when he tries to do this good deed, he, a person always looking after others, eventually ends up as the one being screwed. As it turns out, the watch was reported as stolen and Ryan is suspended. So the first two-thirds of Redbelt deal with one financial slump after another, and eventually Mike is forced to enter that tournament.
But even at that, not until the final shot does Mamet sink into the formulaic routine. The only major flaw with Redbelt is the conclusion, which makes the movie feel like it ended five or ten minutes too early. Other than that, I was very impressed with the writing on display here. The film is not about our protagonist winning a tournament; it’s about him doing what is right every time the situation calls for it, which ironically is exactly what has pitted him in this compelling situation.
The supporting cast is gargantuan, so it is no surprise that most of the characters are underdeveloped. One of the standouts is Braga as Sondra, an independent figure who nonetheless sticks by her husband and supports him. Tim Allen, in what could very well be the best role of his career, plays famous actor Chet Frank. After Mike saves Chet from getting an ass-kicking in a bar fight, Chet offers to let Mike be a fight consultant on his new movie, which is humorously set in either the Gulf or Iraq War (a personal message from Mamet?) Emily Mortimer has the meatiest sub-role as disturbed attorney Laura Black, who accidentally discharges a firearm in the direction of Officer Joe Ryan and shoots out the academy’s front window. To repay her debt for Ryan giving her a pass from prosecution, she agrees to become Mike’s personal attorney throughout his struggles, which includes trying to win copyright ownership over a trademark Mike created that is being used in the tournament. The rest of the cast includes Joe Mantegna as Chet Frank’s manager, David Paymer as a friend that loans Mike some money, and Ricky Jay as the head honcho behind the tournament.
Redbelt is a very solid picture in need of a better ending, but that is only a minor disappointment. The overall writing is fluent, and the performance by Ejiofor is near perfect. It doesn’t shatter the earth nor does it revolutionize the martial arts subgenre, but it is the work of a storyteller rather than the work of an action junkie director; and the end result is refreshing.