Too bad the title "The Last Samurai" was already snatched up by Tom Cruise, because David Mamet's "Redbelt" is the most authentic samurai movie to hit the screen in years. A modern-day tale of honor and integrity, "Redbelt" strikes amazing notes of drama and character composition that could only come from the labyrinthine, puckered mind of Mamet.
Mike (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu teacher hoping to impart lessons of esteem to his students to make up for his own past sins. Short on cash, Mike can't help but become caught up in the lives of others, devoting his time to a troubled cop and an emotionally fragile lawyer (Emily Mortimer) over his own troubled marriage (with wife played by Alice Braga). When Hollywood star Chet (Tim Allen) stumbles upon Mike's fight skill, the two embark on a business relationship that promises to change Mike's life, but when things sour, it forces the elite urban warrior to consider stepping into the ring to compete for money.
Deceptively simple in matters of plot, "Redbelt" is a dense character study with a fully-stocked line-up of personalities and jagged manipulations. Set in the world of Jiu-Jitsu training and competition, the subject is near to Mamet's heart, and he treats the limb-twisting world as sacred ground. These men and women find the spirit they lack in the real world on the mats of Mike's establishment; the martial art fills them with a sense of peace and community where their own lives are failing them. Mamet has no trouble communicating this brotherhood, leading with Ejiofor's convincing performance: a meditative, internalized conception of nobility swimming against the current in a sea of dishonesty and vile manipulations, always motivated by money.
Clearly Mamet has issues with the diseased inner-workings of professional sports publicity and the underhanded behaviors of Hollywood archetypes, and he shreds both in his imaginative screenplay, depicting the professions as unforgivable industries of disgrace. While Mike is trying to uphold the ways of civility, everything around him is cynical and toxic, sold with generous portions of slither by Mamet's top-shelf acting troupe (Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, and Rebecca Pidgeon also star). Mamet assembles the claustrophobia of the story with astonishing clarity and really slathers on the betrayals as well as Mike's growing recognition of exploitation with icy malice.
Mike's maturation, or perhaps complete abandon, in the finale of the picture is a gripping conclusion that pays off every thematic touch Mamet has been slowly encouraging. "Redbelt" explodes during this conclusion, but only to put Mike to the test, forcing him into a corner where he needs to prove himself in a deafening climate of swindlers. It's a perfect conclusion to an outstanding film.
Exploring codes of discipline and respect, "Redbelt" is an arresting feature, thrill-riding Mamet-certified dialogue waves while still maintaining a thoughtful and desired concept of honor in a world that has no patience for such fruitless moral character.
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