BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
The first thing that people usually mention about playwright/filmmaker David Mamet is the potty mouth, the rapid-fire profane dialogue that gives his scripts a steadily salty taste, like an open sore in your mouth. Obscured by all that musical cursing is the fact that Mamet is one of our premiere mystery writers, and Redbelt is the foul-mouthed Agatha Christie’s tenth feature as a director. Like any writer at this stage in his career, Mamet’s work is part inspiration and part compulsive habit. The director continues to find ways to twist his stories so they don’t feel repetitive, yet like the lion’s share of his work as a director, Redbelt is a mystery, featuring theatrical illusions (Mamet regular magician Ricky Jay yakking about the nature of reality) and, yes, some spirited cursing. Only this time Mamet has built his mystery around a story that would be a perfect comeback vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Yep, Redbelt is set in the world of competitive martial arts, and the plot follows the premise of any of those Best of the Best clones continually haunting pay cable. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Mike Terry, the idealistic owner of a karate school, whose high-minded ideals have brought the academy to near bankruptcy. When Mike assists a boozy action film star (a puffy-looking Tim Allen) in a bar fight, he finds himself seduced by the celebrity’s big-money propositions. Hollywood promises aren’t always what they seem — a continuing source of frustration for Mamet — and when the bottom falls out of Mike’s world, he is forced to take his skills to the ring to protect his family and the honor of his fight school.
Either to their amusement or to their horror, Mamet fans will discover how easily the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s ideas about masculinity and deception fit into a kung fu film. Suddenly the Mamet musical or western seems possible: He could Mamet-tize any genre. What’s not surprising is just how effortlessly Ejiofor (so good in Dirty Pretty Things in 2004) transforms Mike into a flesh-and-blood character despite his unending Yoda-esque philosophizing about honor. Ejiofor’s hangdog eyes transmit so much that Mamet seems unable to resist letting him mope soulfully for scene after scene, when any real action director would know that a few more martial arts throwdowns are what the film needs.
By the final act, Mamet sees no way out but to give himself over to the genre’s conventions, dropping the subplots of a drug-addicted lawyer (Emily Mortimer) and Hollywood backstabbing, and the film finally gets around to delivering on its promise of ass-kicking. From there on, Redbelt is as corny as any Rocky sequel, and you we see a brand new David Mamet, one who doesn’t so much dissect the world of testosterone-driven tough guys but instead serves up the red meat that tough guys crave. Does Mamet’s recent Conservative conversion somehow mean there will be more spinning back-kicks in his future work? Always leaving the mystery not quite resolved, this guy.