David Mamet's new film comes on the heels of his recent "election season essay" in the Village Voice entitled "Why I am no longer a 'brain-dead liberal'." It is an interesting confession that has incited quite a discussion in the 500 plus comments. Although I really don't think a directors political outlook should have any baring on the work he or she produces, I couldn't help thinking about his comments while watching Redbelt. I was sure his new cynical world order was about to play out before my eyes, and, nothing new here, but I was wrong.
Redbelt is what you would expect from a David Mamet film with sharp dialog and a scenario that you can feel is about to spin out of control. Mike Terry is a well known and well respected Jiu Jitsu instructor with very high principles, but ideals and honor don't pay the bills. His school is struggling financially, but he seems to have found a kindred spirit in Sammy, a police officer pursuing his black belt. Two chance meetings, one with a lawyer and one with a movie star, send Mike and Sammy down a road with fewer and fewer options. Mike's mantra as an instructor is that "There is always an escape; you just have to find it.' This is the exact problem he faces, a situation with no escape. As one might expect, he has to decide whether or not to sacrifice his code of honor to restore order to his life.
On the surface Redbelt is a fight movie, balancing both the intellectual art of fighting with the corrupt business of fighting. The fights are brutally physical without being gratuitous. But once you step back from the action, the films underlying complexity reveals itself. Mamet has a way of scripting small talk, especially between two people who know each other, that is totally unique. It's the best of what you might find on stage and what you might find on screen and what you might overhear in a public place. Conversations between two people you don't know generally don't make any sense, and Mamet is willing to let that ride in this film quite a bit. Lines are dropped and sometimes never picked up again, but there are also lines and actions that are integral to where the film is going. Refreshingly engaging, the cleverest thing about Redbelt is that it is deceptively simple. The building expectation of a big twist or a final metaphorical punch may be a smart device, but it ultimately makes the adrenaline driven ending a let down.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Mike) and Emily Mortimer are fantastic as the two subdued and quirky heroes. Ricky Jay and Joe Mantegna play Mamet bit parts but they are bit parts that I love, and these two guys can deliver his dialog like no others. I hesitate to read into the film too much, but it is certainly possible with the movie business aspects that are worked into this story. More than anything, my dissatisfaction with the ending makes me want to think that there is more than meets the eye. Instead of digressing, I will drop my brain-dead liberal over analyzing, and accept that Mamet has delivers a Rocky moment where we pump our fist into the air and wipe the tear from our eye.