by GEOFF GEIB
Oh, David Mamet, how I love your halting, sparse, profanity laden dialogue from a bygone age. It’s just so…well, it is what it is and indeed it is, and it’s just so f*#king nifty.
Mamet’s body of work, which began on the screen twenty years ago with the ferocious House of Games, is the embodiment of Picasso’s sentiment that art is the lie which reveals the truth. Redbelt, like so many of Mamet’s films, is filled with deceit and treachery, both from the characters and the filmmaker, but by willingly and happily allowing ourselves to be manipulated, we emerge with a little better understanding of the world than when we entered the theater. Plus, we get to see Tim Allen as a narcissistic and vaguely evil movie star. It’s a winning combination.
Redbelt is an instantly familiar entry in the Mamet collection, giving us an uncompromising protagonist who must step lightly through various twists and turns of plot and character and does so less with guile and skill than with an unyielding sense of righteousness. Think of Val Kilmer in Spartan, Campbell Scott in The Spanish Prisoner and Gene Hackman in Heist. All suffer stoically from problems stemming from their own intractable nature and our fascination with them is the shared knowledge that their lives would be improved immeasurably if they would only bend the tiniest fraction of an inch.
In this mold arises Mike Terry, played beautifully by Chiwetel Ejiofor, an ardent practitioner of an arcane form of Jiu Jitsu, the type of which seems to have been studied from books you might have mail ordered thirty years ago. Much of the joy of Mamet is unraveling the plot, but it is giving away little to mention that Terry’s business is flagging and financial pressures drive most of the choices the characters make. Ejiofor was superb in Dirty Pretty Things, bringing dignity and reserve to his role as a Nigerian immigrant suffering in seedy London, and his approach in Redbelt is similarly pitch perfect. The ability to convey supreme physicality in sequences that often contain little action is a challenge that Ejiofor rises to throughout the film.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, highlighted by Emily Mortimer’s convincing turn as Laura Black, a troubled attorney. Mortimer provides perhaps my favorite scene in the film, in which she is embarrassed by an outburst of tears; Ejiofor calms her with the knowledge that she need not hold back, for there are only fighters there to bear witness. It’s a great line of dialogue, and a prescient one as we find in the final turning point of the film. It is with such craft and skill that Mamet guides (manipulates) the viewer, giving us characters that unfold in languid fashion, surprising themselves as much as us.
The finale is a curiosity, a combat sequence with little visceral thrill and an initially under whelming final shot. Mamet has written that his style of directing has little or nothing to do with visual aesthetics and everything to do with the truth of the moment, the overall point of the scene, and certainly we should expect nothing less from a playwright. Much of the final fight is seen in the distance, the crowd in attendance a disembodied entity that frames the contest less in terms of size or spectacle but ultimately to create a sense of isolation. There is no prize for Terry, no joy in battle. He stands alone, his faith and code of conduct all that simultaneously protects and damns him from a shattered life of his own creation.
3 1/2 stars