Redbelt Dir. David Mamet

[Sony Pictures Classics; 2008]

Like so many of David Mamet’s films, Redbelt is not really about its principal subject matter. Although set in the growing world of mixed martial arts competition, this story, like its predecessors, is about money, greed, and men who are lone islands of honor in seas of corruption. Audiences expecting to see a traditional fight film will likely be disappointed, as the jiu-jitsu acts not as a vehicle for a series of action sequences, but rather as a metaphor for an instructor's fight through a near-impossible set of moral and ethical snares.

Redbelt succeeds as a journey into the underbelly of fight promotion and Hollywood, exposing the victims of greed in both worlds. It dazzles with its prurient exploration of mixed martial arts' increasing popularity and seems to be doing everything right. And as screenwriters go, Mamet is better than most. The film showcases his great talent for naturalistic and believable dialog; he rarely resorts to exposition and crafts a great series of dramatic scenes. But as strong as the dialog is, the narrative itself is something of a mess

The film follows West Los Angeles instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who serves a clientèle mainly consisting of police officers and security guards. He is revered by his students for his code of honor and refusal to participate in competition (which he argues is “weakening” to a fighter), but Mike's reticence to embrace the lucrative side of his profession lands him in a financial hole. A series of chance events and meetings result in an opportunity for Mike to cash in by co-producing and consulting on a Hollywood feature starring Chet Frank (played by an enjoyably sleazy Tim Allen). But like in jiu-jitsu, a single error on Mike’s part causes a complete reversal of fortune, backing him increasingly further into a corner until he has no choice but to violate his own ethics and accept a crooked promoter’s offer to appear in a televised Mixed Martial Arts event.

But flaws develop as Mamet constantly opens new sub-plots and then abandons them without warning. There’s the emotionally damaged attorney (Emily Mortimer), for example, who's seemingly involved in a prescription drug scam, a detail that is conveniently forgotten when she becomes one of the film's “good guys.” We see snapshots of characters, but with the exception of Mike, they never receive any satisfying development. Even when Mike's wife, Sondra, betrays him in the end, we wonder why we should care; we're not invested in their relationship because we never got to know her very well in the first place.

Redbelt betrays its stronger sensibilities in its crucial final minutes. What was a fascinating, if a bit muddled, tale of greed and dishonor spirals out of control into a cliché-rich bombardment of Hollywood sentimentality. One can almost pinpoint the exact moment when David Mamet was blackjacked in the head and replaced by the haunting spirit of Michael Bay. The final five minutes are excruciating, as the entire film devolves into one long “you can be my wingman anytime” moment. The dialog that served the writer/director so well throughout the film is jettisoned completely in the last scene, and we are left watching a movie with so much potential self-destruct in the clumsy pursuit of an uplifting ending.

Perhaps viewers should cut their losses by leaving the theater a little early. At the moment Mortimer’s character slaps Ejiofor across the face, take a walk and beat the traffic home. You'll be left with a much more satisfying ending than the one the rest of the audience will be suffering through.

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