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Redbelt ***
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

redbelt.jpg
David Mamet tackles the fight game
in the tense but uneven Redbelt.

REDBELT
(Courtesy of SFStation.com)

David Mamet’s sharp, bruising dialogue has informed tales of desperate salesmen, murderous con artists and blue-collar labor leaders, men for whom hostility, if not the explicit threat of violence, is an ever-present workplace reality. Rarely has Mamet explored the fight game, as he does with mixed results in Redbelt, but careful observers will recognize in his latest thriller some of the characters and themes that have become staples of his hyper-masculine storytelling.

There is the pampered, disingenuous movie star (Tim Allen), the kind Mamet skewered so effortlessly in State and Main; an illusionist (Cyril Takayama) whose slippery sleight of hand recalls Ricky Jay’s trickery in House of Games; and an insidious, Spanish Prisoner-style con job orchestrated by Jay, on hand as a sleazy fight promoter, and longtime Mamet collaborator Joe Mantegna.

The target of their elaborate scam is Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an unassuming jujitsu instructor saddled with a mounting pile of unpaid bills and an increasingly tense marriage. Mike could solve his problems by entering a martial-arts tournament with a $50,000 grand prize, but like all noble warriors, he adheres to an unimpeachable code. He fights for honor, not for money, even as he and his wife (Alice Braga) fall deeper into debt.

He stumbles into the treacherous world of the Hollywood elite when Chet Frank (Allen), a big-screen heavy, incites a brawl at the local bar; Mike saves him from the fray and soon finds himself dining at Chet’s lavish mansion. Pleasantries are exchanged, deals are brokered, and Mike impulsively agrees to co-produce Chet’s latest action extravaganza. The future seems suddenly brighter, but as is always the case in Mamet’s paranoid universe, even the most fortunate twists of fate have harsh, unforeseen consequences.

The upshot, after a series of betrayals that leave him penniless and his jujitsu academy on the verge of bankruptcy, is that Mike agrees to fight for money. It is an act of desperation, but even in his darkest hour, Mamet’s urban samurai never sacrifices his pride. Upon learning that the contest is fixed, Mike takes matters into his own hands, leading to a feel-good denouement that rings uncommonly false. Mamet is rarely one to burden his stories with common clichés; when he does so in Redbelt, the movie falls apart.

Up to that point, his foray into the ring is a rousing success. Ejiofor, who deserved an Oscar nomination for his supporting turn in last year’s Talk to Me, is brilliant here, delivering an understated but emotionally rich performance as a hero sinking beneath the weight of his convictions. And Mamet’s dialogue is crisp, invigorated by supporting players (particularly Mantegna and Jay) who relish his acerbic wordplay. But for a movie that aims to do for jujitsu what Rocky did for boxing, Redbelt taps out before the final bell.

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