Redbelt (2008)

When my husband and I watched a trailer for Redbelt a few weeks ago, not knowing anything about the movie, we turned to each other and said “Mamet” before the credits proved we were right — David Mamet wrote and directed the film. Unfortunately, it’s not one of his best. I’ve read several glowing reviews, and I have to wonder if the critics saw the same film I did. Because the Redbelt I saw was a mess — often entertaining, but too inconsistent.
Redbelt is about martial-arts instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is content to run a small school and not worry about money or competitions. A string of events one night changes everything — Mike has to ask his brother-in-law for money to fix some damage to his school, and while in his brother-in-law’s bar he ends up protecting action-hero movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) from a potentially nasty fight. Next thing you know, Mike is lured into unfamiliar scenes and deals and commitments and faces the possibility he’ll have to do the one thing he finds truly repellant: competing in a fight for money.

I know you’re supposed to watch Mamet’s movies on a higher metaphorical plane, focusing on the main character’s spiritual journey, and disregarding details that might not make sense in the same way it does in real life. But the plot still needs to be comprehensible on a basic real-world level and in Redbelt, it’s full of giant holes and inconsistencies. Why would certain characters go to so much trouble to set up the trap that is revealed in the film’s climactic moments? Why would — well, I don’t want to give away plot twists, but I had a dozen “why” questions after the film, and not nitpicky ones either. The story does not gel — some great scenes have no connectors.
Fortunately, Ejiofor’s strong performance helps make the film seem less scattered. I’ve enjoyed his performances in Children of Men and Dirty Pretty Things and he’s a pleasure to watch onscreen. Other actors have more trouble with the non-naturalistic Mamet dialogue and make it sound almost like a parody of itself: during one scene, my husband started laughing and I guessed correctly it was because the lines were too over-the-top, too stereotypical of the writer to be taken at all seriously. Supporting actors Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay and David Paymer also fit comfortably into the Mamet world, but Tim Allen is jarring, too familiar, too much a fish out of water. However, that may have been the desired result.
Redbelt contains some fun-to-watch fight scenes, which provide some respite from the dialogue. I especially liked a scene on a movie set where a friend of Mike’s is training stuntmen in how to stage a knife fight, and Mike gets drawn into the action. And I’ve seen a second trailer for the film that is a lot less obviously Mamet-ish, which focuses on the fighting and on Mike’s relationship with Emily Mortimer’s character. The movie looks much more mainstream and commercial in this trailer. Is Redbelt Mamet’s attempt at a traditional Hollywood film? If so, it doesn’t succeed — the story is too fragmented to keep audiences engaged and interested.

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