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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 22.22%
Average: 25.93%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 3.7%

4 reviews, 3 user ratings

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by Erik Childress

"There's Only One Mamet, But He Doesn't Earn That Title Belt Here"
3 stars

When I first heard that my favorite writer’s next film was going to be set within the world of mixed martial arts, I thought it was an odd jump from his world of con men and compromised investigators. What I didn’t know at the time was David Mamet’s own experience in jiu-jitsu training. My first assumption was, like many artists from time-to-time, Mamet was just crafting a passion project around an activity that he was a great fan of. With the growth of ultimate fighting turning into a Saturday night network event, perhaps he even had some commentary on a hypocritical society embracing the next evolution of gladiator combat. Watching the finished product though became one of the larger disappointments I’ve had in a great while. The trademark dialogue is there. So are all the pawns for an impending statement to be made about industrial duplicity and honoring a commitment to a code beyond the reach of the common man. But so are all the usual suspects that come from MametLand and one can only hear Dubya’s botching of “fool me once…” laced with Who lyrics rattling around as we reach for the exact number of double crosses it takes before we can officially apply shame.

Mike Terry (the great Chiwetel Ejiofor) teaches a full, if not entirely cash-flowing, jiu-jitsu studio in Los Angeles. He teaches his adult students, including police officers, the key to surviving a battle by tiring their opponent and keeping their own emotions in check. One can also derive the same code from the end of Rocky III, but one person who never learned the emotion part is attorney Laura Black (Emily Mortimer), whom we first see desperately trying to get to a pharmacy and then dinging Mike’s car. When she shows up to confess, a jumpy Laura creates some further damage. Mike invents a story to displace blame from either the attorney or the cop, but his wife Sondra (Alice Braga) knows they don’t need another bill they can’t pay and suggests Mike go see her sleazy brother (Rodrigo Santoro) and ask him for the money.

The brother’s partner, Marty Brown (Ricky Jay), suggests over and over again (in atypical Mamet fashion) that if Mike needs the money so bad he should fight on the under card of a professional bout he’s been trying to fill. Mike is strictly against competitions as he believes they “weaken” the man, which is kind of like those professors you had in college who bragged about not owning a television. While there Mike sees Hollywood action star, Chet Frank (Tim Allen), step into the bar for a drink and immediately harassed by some guys questioning his toughness. The confrontation gets violent and Mike gets involved, saving Chet’s skin and gaining a potentially lucrative associate. Offered the position as a consultant on Chet’s latest military film, Mike and Sandra enjoy a little taste of the good life. But as they say in Hollywood you’re only as good as your last consulting job and Mike must call his honor to the carpet when he discovers things aren’t as good as they seem.

If Mike knew he was in a Mamet film he’d have those last words tattooed across his knuckles. He doesn’t, but we do and, though we hope it’s not the case, his brief bout with success is merely a smokescreen for troubled times. It may also have been a cliché to counter Mike’s samurai-esque ethics with the obtuse fakeness of the glitterati and the soulless entertainment they produce. But at least it would have been a consistent leap from Mike’s contention that the corruption of the code into just another sport for public consumption is no different from the big budget world of movies smothering the soul of cinema.

This isn’t really a story about Hollywood though as we discover it to be just a bridge from what seems like a fresh Mamet creation (like the underrated Spartan which continues to get better in multiple viewings) to the same tired mush about the evil that men do and the overly complicated way that they do it. When you consider the reinvention Mamet brought to the con game in House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner and as much fun as he had with a flat-out doublecrossing crime game like Heist, does he believe that we aren’t ahead of what he’s playing? Even by potentially catching us off guard by duping us into watching a playwright’s version of a mixed martial arts film, are we likely to be more stunned by the late second act developments or annoyed that this dry well is once again being plummeted for the depths of the con game that even Jimmy Dell would comment, “there’s got to be an easier way.”

Steve Martin’s character did repeat an old axiom, “Always do business as if the person you're doing business with is trying to screw you, because he probably is. And if he's not, you can be pleasantly surprised,” and that’s advice to remember. Only unlike Spartan, our surprise is anything but pleasant, if shocking at all. The actors are all great, but become little more than pawns. Mortimer’s attorney represents a positive for Mike’s teachings, but her victim status is evident from the get-go and their relationship never amounts to anything but a moral compass glued to North. Tim Allen is really strong in the Martin-like role of the wealthy partner who takes the lesson, principled protagonist under his wing, but there’s way too little of him to truly applaud Allen’s dramatic efforts. And if you can think of the last time you WANTED more Tim Allen in a movie, that’s a true testament to what Mametspeak can do for actors. Always great to see Joe Mantegna working with his old Chicago partner but it’s not much of a role for him. Certainly not as much as it is for Ejiofor, one of our most reliable supporting players ever since breaking through as the lead in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things. As Mike Terry he brings enormous credibility to dialect and philosophies that could run the gamut from pompous to outright silly. There’s an undisclosed military background to Terry’s character that suggest he’s been born again from a world of unspeakable violence and horror but his constant refusal for the spotlight goes from ethical conflict to the manipulation and whining of Daniel LaRusso in Karate Kid III.

Mamet aficionados may go so far to suggest Redbelt is part satire of the noble intentions of John G. Avildsen films being denigrated through sequelitis and the hunt for big box office. Realists will see it as a somewhat noble attempt at such a theme ruined by once again chasing the mice inside his own skull. The digression of the film’s setup into an expedited version of The Spanish Prisoner would be less unnerving if what followed didn’t turn out to be so irreversibly ridiculous. Sports + Big Money = Fixed Events – REALLY? Following the leads by this year’s Step Up 2 The Streets and Never Back Down, a final unsanctioned, out-of-the-ring battle is flabby and unsatisfying but documentary-like compared to a final moment which couldn’t be less authentic if Ejiofor was wearing a flight suit while a “Mission Accomplished” banner came streaming down over him. Shame is easily too strong a word to apply to arguably the greatest writer of the last three decades, but maybe for his next project Mamet can leave the con men behind and all the ancient Sun Tzu strategies and remember a more modern piece of philosophy from Batman Begins that could easily have been applied to Redbelt: “Why do we fall down? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Hi Yah to that.

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originally posted: 05/02/08 14:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival For more in the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/08/08 damalc well acted but a rambling mess for a mamet film 3 stars
10/01/08 Lee Captivating, meaningful, Victorious 5 stars
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  02-May-2008 (R)
  DVD: 26-Aug-2008


  DVD: 26-Aug-2008

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