David Mamet continues to be so strongly identified with no-holds-barred psychic assaults like Glengarry Glen Ross and House of Games that it's easy to forget the guy's been diversifying for ages. As far back as 1988, the playwright-turned-filmmaker was dabbling in light comedy with Things Change, a form he returned to with 2000's State and Main and — Quelle horreur! — the forthcoming Will Ferrell thingie, Joan of Bark: The Dog that Saved France. Beyond that, Mamet's been dipping his toes in Hollywood genres for the better part of the past decade, from the courtroom drama of The Winslow Boy (1999) to the relatively straight forward action of Heist (2001) to the stripped-down kidnapping thriller Spartan (2004), in which the filmmaker appeared eager but slightly embarrassed about entering John Grisham territory.
Mamet's commercialization continues apace in Redbelt, a movie the writer-director insists is "not a martial arts movie," even though it's firmly entrenched in the immensely popular world of mixed martial arts and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. What Mamet probably means is that the movie's fight scenes take a decided back seat to its focus on a lone figure standing up for a personal code of honor in a world that has none — a trope the filmmaker directly links to the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa and the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone (although you could certainly extend this chain through the arty gangster opuses of Jean-Pierre Melville and John Woo).
Redbelt isn't nearly as complex or as interesting as the director's best work, but it's still clearly a David Mamet film, complete with an abiding fascination for the behavioral minutiae of lowlifes and fringe-dwellers, con artistry, sleights of hand and, of course, language. The Mametspeak in Redbelt is toned down, but the characters still talk in tight, elegant circles, almost always using language with pinpoint precision. Sometimes the words are rapid-fire and brutally staccato, a linguistic drive-by shooting jarring us to attention; other times they're used seductively, with phrases repeated like mantras until they take on a weight alternately sensual, cerebral or sinister, sometimes all at once.
The modern samurai at the center of the film is Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Jiu-jitsu teacher so highly principled it's no wonder his self-defense studio is always strapped for cash. "A man distracted is a man defeated," Terry tells his students — a line that does double duty as Mamet's fair warning for us to be alert to small details that will eventually prove critical to his story. And so the dominoes begin falling in place: an emotionally fragile woman (Emily Mortimer) wanders into the studio and accidentally creates havoc that will come back to haunt everyone; Terry discovers his wife's brother screwing over one of his prize students, an off-duty cop; a barroom brawl results in a big break for Terry when he saves the ass of a guy who turns out to be a big movie star (Tim Allen).
Terry finds himself being promised the world by the actor, but, in typically Mamet-esque fashion, things are not what they seem, and the lucky star on which he's hitched a ride begins looking more like a black hole. Faustian bargains and blackmail schemes begin rearing their ugly heads, as the filmmaker entwines various demi-worlds — Hollywood and hustlers, fighters and promoters, lawyers and media whores — before coming in for the kill. Our almost absurdly noble hero ultimately finds himself forced to choose between his principles or some semblance of a pain-free life, compelled by crooks and liars to take part in a phony competition that flies in the face of everything he believes in.
Fighter Mike's moment of decision in a fatally compromised world inevitably evokes such morally charged fight-classics as The Set-Up, Body and Soul or even On the Waterfront — but the boxing movie Redbelt most resembles, for better or worse, might just be Rocky. Mamet's writing is oddly lazy here, and the world he details atypically black-and-white in a way designed to get us rooting for its heroes and hissing at its villains. Ejiofor's character may be a more complicated individual than Stallone's underdog champion, but when Terry has his final showdown with the powers that be, he works up the crowd in a way that's pure Rocky Balboa, with maybe a smidge of Eastwood's Man with No Name thrown in for good measure.
The movie's set-up is lean and elegant, but Redbelt gives way all too soon to a rather convoluted and, truth be told, borderline silly downward spiral in which too many overheated events pile up way too quickly and resolve themselves way too neatly. Mamet manages to keep it all watchable largely by grounding the movie in a palpable sense of realism — non-actors from the martial arts world pepper the cast, and the messy, grappling style of the on-screen fights is more concerned with authenticity than looking good for the camera — but Redbelt never quite manages to convince.
Pitched somewhere between art film and commercial entertainment, Redbelt doesn't really work as either, and there's something a little coy about how both ends get played here. Mamet makes sure the movie's most detestable villains turn out to be Hollywood players, making it easy to parallel Terry's righteous indignation over the vulgarization of his noble profession with the filmmaker's concern for the state of cinema. But on the evidence of Redbelt, methinks somebody doth protest too much.