In martial arts, a red belt signifies a master. While anyone could conceivably work his or her way up to a black belt, it's the rare fighter that gets red. Red signifies someone everyone else looks to, the teachers who show them the way. Not unlike David Mamet in terms of the dramatic arts. The playwright and filmmaker has influenced many young writers with his unique cadence and the depth perception he applies to his stories, which are often about manly men doing manly things. Most film fans can quote at least some part of Glengarry Glen Ross off the top of their heads.
Which isn't to say that masters don't also have a bad day from time to time. Mamet's new writing/directing effort, Redbelt, is not his finest moment, but lucky for him, that's a little bit like saying the sun didn't shine nearly as bright today as it did yesterday. However you slice it, it's still shining.
Redbelt looks like a exploitative cash-in on the rising trend of mixed martial arts, but those going in looking for a grown-up version of Never Back Down with lots of scrapping, yelling, and mixing it up might want to cool their jets. There are a couple of clashes, including a dynamite bar fight and an Ultimate Fighting Championship-like bout that takes up the final quarter of the film, but everything surrounding those bloody battles is pure, contemplative Mamet.
The plot of the movie revolves around Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, American Gangster), a jiu jitsu instructor who is trying to live by the code of the warrior. In terms of other Mamet heroes, he is reminiscent of Val Kilmer's character in Spartan in that he is a man devoted to being the best at what he does, often at the sacrifice of all else. Mike is not a very good business man, and right from the get-go, his dojo is in trouble. A skittish lawyer (Emily Mortimer, Match Point) has accidentally put a bullet through his front window, using a gun left unattended by one of Mike's top students, a cop named Joe (Max Martini, also in Mamet's TV show The Unit). Mike's wife, the lovely clothes designer Sondra (Alice Braga, I Am Legend), tells him he can fix the window, but then he won't be able to afford his rent, not unless she sacrifices her own business to save his. It's already enough for one guy to take, but Mamet has only just begun to pile it onto Mike Terry.
Almost from the get-go, people are trying to get Mike to join the undercard of a martial arts pay-per-view spectacle, and he resists. Mike is pursuing a course of study that advocates purity, and fighting for competition automatically taints the noble discipline. It's a standard trope of martial arts movie: the truly gifted fighter who won't step into the ring for personal reasons. Here, the script gets needlessly complicated. Mamet applies the same kind of twisty framework to the conspiracy of life that will push Mike onto the canvas that he would normally save for the who's-double-crossing-whom guessing games of one of his con movies, like House of Games or Heist. The forces at work against Mike include an aging Hollywood action start (played almost implausibly by Home Improvement's Tim Allen, looking like he's been taking diet tips from Sylvester Stallone or maybe Steven Seagal), the man's shady agent/producer (Mamet perennial Joe Mantegna), an overbearing promoter (another Mamet regular, Ricky Jay), a loan shark (David Paymer, Ocean's Thirteen), and Mike's in-laws, who just so happen to be connected to Mike's sensei. They even start to ruin Sondra's business and tangle the cop into the web, not because they specifically want Mike to fight but for far greedier reasons. Mike's participation in the match is just an unfortunate byproduct.
These are a lot of pieces for Mamet to put together, and it takes an awfully long time to construct the mechanism. It's a little like crushing pebbles with a sledge hammer. The only thing that keeps Redbelt from buckling under the weight is the impeccable writing. There's not a puzzle piece out of place, not a single useless red herring. Every tool Mamet picks up, he's going to use, and while at times Redbelt can get a tad dull, there is a smarty-pants thrill to be had when you start to see how the right ducks end up in the right rows.
Also quite good is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who tends to pop up in a lot of different movies playing a lot of different characters and doing them all incredibly well. His performance here recalls his badass turn as the villain in Serenity. He's calm and in control, and he knows how to use his body as a weapon. The difference between the roles is that here he is a good-hearted man who wants to do the right thing, even when everyone else would rather see him sacrifice his principles for a direct route to success. Ejiofor's a confident, chameleonic performer, and he's absolutely convincing in the athletic scenes.
When the championship match does finally arrive, Mamet struggles with Mike's motivation, with giving the audience the tussle they've been waiting for while also staying true to the character. I would say he only partially succeeds. While the plot machinations do click, I don't think the choice of setting works as well as a more traditional environment (which is as close as I want to get to explaining that without giving away a twist or two). Instead of keeping the battle confined, he also cuts away from it far too much, stretching further the already off-kilter sense of time that takes over Redbelt the moment Mike gets to the sports arena. He's told at two different times that he has fifteen minutes before his match, and it feels like no one is really in a rush to take care of business, despite warnings of needing to get all of the undercard fights out of the way by a certain time. Mamet seems to be sacrificing his own internal logic to fake suspense.
Likewise, the very end of the film left me cold. Though it makes some sense in terms of Mike's warrior's journey, it has a level of cheese that has long since crusted over in the fondue pot of '80s sports movies. Really, an entire sports arena standing at quiet attention? Is this the end of Apocalypse Now? We're not even going to get an eruptive cheer? Release the chokehold, David, I can't breathe!
In summation, if you go to Redbelt expecting a thinking man's take on the traditional fight picture, you'll be mostly satisfied. If you go looking for a crowd-pleaser where one man's indomitable will turns another man's face into bloody hamburger, you might want to look elsewhere. Less a David Mamet classic, more of an interesting pseudo-success.