Friday, May 02, 2008

"Redbelt" -- * * 1/2

With "Redbelt," his first film since coming out as a converted ultra-conservative, David Mamet tries something completely different than he's attempted before. He doesn't really succeed, but like most ambitious efforts, it's more interesting to watch than a filmmaker going through the motions. It almost sounds like a joke for the showy-dialogue expert Mamet to tackle a martial arts film, but the end result is never an embarrassment, just a bit of a mess. We get the self-aware dialogue, the tangential plot strands, and the oddly incongruous ensemble cast he's become known for, but we also get choppily edited fight sequences and a bit more convention than one might be used to from Mamet; it all never really gels into a fluid whole, but the film is most successful as a pulpy genre piece, whether that was the intention or not.

It all centers around self-defense studio owner Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who runs his place with his wife Sondra (Alice Braga). One night while training with his top student Joe (Max Martini), a policeman, the two are startled by a lawyer, Laura (Emily Mortimer), who shows up, and through a kinda logical series of events, impulsively grabs Joe's pistol and shoots out the studio's glass window accidentally. Mike, with a strong sense of honor/righteousness, inspires Joe to not report the accident. Following this, through a whirlwind of events involving a sinister fight promoter (Ricky Jay), a popular action movie star (Tim Allen), a loan shark (David Paymer), a movie producer (Joe Mantegna), Mike and Sondra are faced with a $30,000 debt that can only be resolved by Mike entering into a big mixed-martial arts fight. Yeah.

If my plot description isn't particularly helpful, that's because I had a fuck of a lot of trouble following "Redbelt," though by the end I think I got what was all going down. The convoluted nature is a double edged sword. It's what I liked most, but also its key problem. The "what the shit is going on?" feeling keeps us intrigued and interested, but when it all shakes out, it's apparent that the movie really didn't need to be this way. I liked that it wraps us up and immerses us in how complicated and complex this world is, and introduces us to these characters, but there are so many thrown at us, it's difficult to keep them all straight and ascertain who you do and don't need to pay attention to. It's reminiscent of the structure/set-up of Mamet's fantastic "The Spanish Prisoner," but has nowhere near that film's payoff or level of involvement. We keep waiting for all these twists, coincidences and plot strands to propel into something meaningful, or at least "cool," but it all just snowballs into a whimper.

Rarely given the opportunity to take command of a leading role, Ejiofor shows again what a solid actor he is as our protagonist. Initially, the film seems to serve as a showcase for him, but as that, it disappoints. Chewie absorbs us, and brings us in, but Mike never quite becomes the great role it promises to. The actor never seems to entirely have a grasp on the character's thoughts and motivations, and that's a problem that begins with the script. The rest of the ensemble cast is mostly solid, with no one really excelling or embarrassingly faltering. The one that ultimately sticks out the most is Santa Claus himself, Allen, really strong in an against-type role that ultimately doesn't serve much importance. Allen clearly wanted to participate here to remind us that he's more than just a kiddie-flick actor, and can do solid work if he gets the chance; he succeeds on both of these fronts, but the role's really not meaty enough to ensure he'll get much more of it in the future.

Mamet's trademark has always been his dialogue, punctuating his otherwise pedestrian works ("Heist," "Hannibal"), elevating an already special script ("Wag the Dog," "Glengarry Glen Ross") or trying too hard (the currently-on-Broadway "November"). Here, the dialogue isn't especially problematic, but its everpresent, either drifting into the background intentionally, or drawing attention to itself. Mamet's focused more on plotting than dialogue this time around; there's some sharp bits but we don't get anything approaching "My motherfucker's so cool, when he goes to bed, sheep count him." Some actors seem incapable of properly handling it (most noticeably Braga), while some excel (namely Mamet regulars Mantegna and Jay). Unfortunately, Mamet also indulges in some extreme coincidences to deal with certain plot strands, something he usually rises above; and a late-film element involving an idea of Mike's being stolen just makes one wonder why it's worth all the trouble. It's really nothing terribly inventive, especially in the world of high-stakes fighting.

If my thoughts seems a bit schizophrenic/conflicting regarding "Redbelt," that's because they are. It's a bit of a mixed bag; there are a lot of problems here, but I was never bored and was always interested in what Mamet was doing (or trying to do). But ultimately, besides diehards of the writer/fimmaker or fans of the actors, I'm not quite sure who will dig it. The film has a little bit for everyone, but not really enough to completely satisfy any of them. It doesn't have enough of Mamet's trademark to fulfill the needs of those who seek out clever dialogue-driven films, and there's not nearly enough fighting to satiate the meathead audience; only in its "Rocky" reminiscent final section does that stuff rear its head, and even then it's not shot very well (Mamet may not have been the best choice as director for this action material). Still, for all its inexplicable elements and convolution, "Redbelt" is always at least entertaining and a drastically different approach from the often too-clever-for-the-room writer.

"Redbelt" opens in 6 theaters in New York and Los Angeles today, and 1,000 theaters nationwide on May 9th.


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