There are some thwarted expectations in Redbelt, David Mamet's middling, slightly baffling drama. A thoroughly honorable West L.A. jujitsu teacher named Mike Terry is played by one of the very best actors around, Chiwetel Ejiofor. As in seeing Philip Marlowe, we can tell at a glance that Terry is honest: he lives in L.A., and yet he has no money.
Through a chain of events, Terry encounters a powerful Hollywood star (Tim Allen). The star hires him as a consultant on an Iraq War movie he's shooting in the nearby desert. On the strength of this new job, Mike's wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), gets into debt.
All of this pushes Mike in the one direction where he doesn't want to go. This black-belt, whose motto is "There is always an escape," is forced into a free-style prize-fighting match he wants nothing to do with. The sinister gimmick: the fighters have to draw lots, a black or a white marble, to see whether or not a limb will be immobilized before the fight.
Richie (David Paymer), the loan shark, learns that he's out $30,000. Instead of raging about it, he clutches his stomach in panic. It must be a variation of the proverb about how if you owe a large enough amount of money, you own the bank, the bank doesn't own you. With a defaulting customer, Richie is now in trouble with his higher-ups. This clutching of the belly may be the most sensible reaction by a, er, microfinancier onscreen since Travolta's Chili in Get Shorty noted that if break your debtor's legs, how is he going to pay you off?
Similar common sense prevails in a moment where a traumatized rape victim (Emily Mortimer) is given her first lesson in self-defense. We also note some craft in the hard-bitten lines for Ricky Jay, here playing a fight promoter. The key incident in Redbelt, the story of a valuable watch, sounds like a true anecdote. (It may be something Mamet spun off from Maupassant, but it sounds plausible, like a piece of Hollywood gossip you just ache to believe.)
Mamet appears to be reaching out to an action-movie crowd. The foreign-language-training-tape quality of his dialogue doesn't seem to echo off of the plywood of the sets, as it does in some of his other films. The gears mesh—it's just that the machine as a whole doesn't work.
It seems that Mamet trained in martial arts for five years, and he has all due reverence for his teachers. He insists on the selflessness and the good hearts of such teachers. Fair enough.
Even so, Redbelt has a Chuck Norris plot, no matter how much an intelligent writer-director refines it. Mamet would have thrived in the days when movies were 60 minutes long. Shorter running times would have let him glide by the weak spots, like the baffling behavior of a dumb but decent policeman who has fewer cops looking out for him when he's in trouble than any cop you've ever seen in a movie. A shorter running time might also make up for the almost translucent thinness of the female characters.
And as always in Mamet, the women here are men, second-class. They might be promoted to men someday, if they keep up the good work.
'Redbelt' opens on Friday, May 9, at the Century CineArts at Marin, 101 Caledonia St., Sausalito. 415.331.0255.
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