Monday, May 12, 2008

Redbelt: David Mamet flexes his muscles, acknowledges the old masters, kicks pretty good ass

“There is no situation from which you cannot escape,” promises earnest jujitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the instantly engaging opening scene of Redbelt. It’s a promise Terry plans to exemplify to the last, and it simultaneously signifies the ballsy promise of writer/director David Mamet’s tenth feature, a taut, inventive, wildly convoluted little thriller that operates unapologetically by the tried and true rules of old Hollywood, the sort of movie that thinks nothing of spelling out its theme right from the start. In fact, it spells it out over and over. 

The story revolves around genuine, unwavering heroism struggling amidst universal corruption—the setting is Los Angeles, the bad guys are movie people—while the plot continually exploits bald artifice in the name of forward motion and an ever-tightening net. There is from start to finish no lack of panache, or jazzy craftsmanship, or conviction. Though people repeat themselves a hell of a lot, the dialogue bounces and pops and twists out incremental variations—it’s its own kind of martial art, full of bluster and wit so witty you’re not even sure it’s wit. 

At the heart of Redbelt’s crisp, clean functionality is a unity between the ideals of the hero and the filmmakers. Terry is a no-shit guy and, in this case at least, Mamet, greatly aided by cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), directs us a winsomely no-shit movie. Deception, slight-of-hand and conspiracy run rampant, things often strain to make any sense, but every wild reversal is finally earned and every scene plays out with exacting nimbleness. The conditions of the drama are laid out bluntly: Terry’s studio is in dire straits financially. His wife (Alicia Braga), who runs a fabric import business on the side, is getting fed up. The martial arts community knows Terry’s one of the best fighters and desires to lure him out of his non-aggressive, non-competitive stance and get him in the ring where the real money is.

It’s Terry’s good will that slowly gets him into trouble. He helps a drunk actor (Tim Allen) out of a potentially gruesome bar fight. He accepts a lucrative invite to consult on a movie. He tries to build up confidence in a whacked-out, drug-addicted lawyer (Emily Watson). He gives an expensive watch to a cop friend. Every gesture can seem either disastrous or benign, every new character a potential friend or enemy. Nothing, as they say, it what it seems. The pleasure comes in watching things unfold in the very bizarre causality of Mamet’s imagination.

When its mechanics are as respected and continually flexed as they are here, the particular brand of classicism to which Mamet adheres allows for a great deal of playfulness. Redbelt, fronted by the seemingly effortless nobility of Ejiofor’s performance, emerges naturally out of a cycle of fight movies like Body and Soul (1947) and The Set-Up (49)—yet the notion of an African-American mastering an Asian fighting discipline and exhibiting an anachronistic code of honour links Redbelt most interestingly to Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (99). But the most notable difference between Mamet and Jarmusch’s vision of the world lies in their attitude toward the rewards of honour and the number of shades applied to those who betray honour. For Mamet, in the end, such matters become as black and white as the old movies he clearly worships, and our satisfaction arises from this implicit moral conviction. Put altogether, it may not be as sophisticated, but man, does it ever make for a knock-out finish.

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