September 28, 2008

Blood, Sweat and Slimesters Down at the Dojo

By Jonathon Romney

Film It takes about three lines of dialogue to realise this martial arts film was written by David Mamet. And when it comes to dark plotting, he is a grand master Redbelt David Mamet 99 MINS, 15

A David Mamet martial arts movie - whoever expected that? Yet the idea makes perfect sense. What, after all, are Mamet plays such as Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo if not fight stories, survival matches between bruisers and losers vying to outflank each other with words instead of fists? The difference between these free- for-alls and Mamet's Redbelt is that in his latest film he suggests that some rules and decorum might be restored to the combat.

If you didn't know it was a Mamet film - and it takes perhaps three lines of dialogue to tell you it is - you might think Redbelt a cynical, phoney undertaking. The tale of a jiu-jitsu fighter staking his all to walk in the way of honour, defending his craft against venal promoters and showbiz slimesters? What is this - a Stallone picture?

In fact, Redbelt harks back to an older vintage, to American boxing films of the 1940s and '50s. He's not just toying with genre: himself a blue-belt practitioner, the writer-director has claimed that jiu-jitsu showed him "a vision of the possibility of correct, moral behaviour in all circumstances". Well, Mamet may stand alone among movie people in that credo, but that's the point about Redbelt - it's nothing if not an old-fashioned man's-gotta-do movie, High Noon down at the dojo.

The film opens with two men fighting at a jiu-jitsu academy in LA: instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is coaching them, in that old incantatory rhythm that's unmistakable Mamet: "Improve the position .... Improve the position .... Insist, insist on it .... Insist on the move."

Then things start to happen. An anxious woman (Emily Mortimer) walks in and something abrupt and crazy takes place - never mind what, it all fits in later. Mike deals with the situation coolly, then later, just as equitably cleans up a prickly bar-room situation involving movie star Chet (Tim Allen, surprisingly effective as a sour, spoilt brat). Chet invites Mike and his wife Sondra (Alice Braga) to dinner, then asks him to advise on the Gulf War drama he's shooting; everyone's happy, everyone's buddies, everyone stands to benefit.

Except that there's also the matter of a watch changing hands, and Terry looking out for a beleaguered cop (Max Martini) who's his star pupil. Suddenly the wheel of fortune goes into reverse, and the precise turning comes in a sweet, perfectly understated moment: Chet's producer (Joe Mantegna) quietly, politely leaves Mike stranded at a dinner table, and you know the die is cast. That, Mamet tells us, is how it's done in Hollywood.

Up to this point, Mamet has slowly reeled out the thread of his story, a consummate saloon-bar raconteur. With slow, crafty increments of complexity, he builds up the idea that all Mike's good, honourable acts can only yield ruin. Then comes the showdown, involving a prestigious big-money fixture, a phoney showbiz affair in which Mike cannot possibly take part, because it doesn't fit his noble code. The outcome is at once predictable, in a corny old- school fight-pic way, and arguably fraudulent - we don't get the fight we expect, but a somewhat different one. But I suppose that's just Mamet making his own use of Mike's combat credo: "You can turn any situation to your advantage."

Whether or not Mamet pulls it off depends on your tolerance for his tricks and habits: for example, as soon as the director's favourite supporting heavy, magician Ricky Jay, shows his baggy face as a fight promoter, we know skulduggery is imminent. There's an obviousness to Redbelt's moral picture: it hardly rates as a revelation to learn that movie people are shallow, insincere users. But it's a real pleasure to have Joe Mantegna's silky-paced diction provide that lesson.

Redbelt is an oddity, all right: a philosophical, cerebral take on what you'd expect to be a muscular sweat-and-bruises story. Having Chiwetel Ejiofor as lead certainly helps: you totally buy his pensive reserve as a latterday samurai stand-up guy. You'll either go for Redbelt - and there's plenty to go for in this spare, no- frills entertainment - or you'll think it's B-movie ludicrous and who the hell is Mamet trying to kid. But he's trying to kid no one: he's simply out to show a storyteller can spin a cock-and-bull tale and still be an honest samurai too.

(c) 2008 Independent on Sunday, The. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.