AS IN many of David Mamet's works, the characters in Redbelt exist in a small pocket of the world, one with its own lexicon, rules and mores. In Glengarry Glen Ross it was the real estate market. In Oleanna it was academia. In Wag the Dog it was Hollywood. In Redbelt it's mixed martial arts, which, given Mamet's status as a preeminent wordsmith, seemingly makes about as much sense as John Woo doing Richard III. But it's a subject Mamet knows well; the 60-year-old writer-director is also a serious jiu-jitsu practitioner. And besides, his movies and plays aren't so much about those little worlds as the people trying to make their way through them.
This is an article from the May 12, 2008 issue
Redbelt opens with martial arts instructor Michael Terry barking at two grapplers, "There is no situation you can't escape from!" Mamet, of course, proceeds to spend the next hour trying to put Terry in just such a situation. Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a badass, but a thoughtful one. He refuses to take part in the spectacle of MMA competitions because he doesn't consider them to be "pure." Fashioning himself as a modern-day samurai, he lives by a code, one that allows him to barely scrape by as a teacher.
All that changes after chance meetings with a frazzled lawyer (the excellent Emily Mortimer) and a boozing actor (Tim Allen) nudge Terry on an inexorable march to the ring. That journey is what makes Redbelt click. It's a labyrinthine ride with plenty of intrigue and double crosses, courtesy of Mamet regulars Ricky Jay (a sketchy promoter), Joe Mantegna (a sketchy producer), David Paymer (a sketchy loan shark) and Rebecca Pidgeon (Allen's sketchy wife).
Once Terry is left with no choice but to abandon his beliefs and compete, Mamet nearly finds himself painted into a corner as well. There aren't many ways to resolve the big fight: Our guy loses (cf. Rocky) or he wins (cf. Rockys II--V). Without giving away too much, let's just say Mamet avoids clichés at the expense of some credulity. But he also makes a strong statement about the inherent corruption in the fight game, as well as presenting what he told SI.com was actually "a parable about Hollywood. It's about the artist in the big, bad world." It's provocative stuff. And all that kicking and punching—well, that's pretty cool too.
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