Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Round and a Bout

Not everything is about the gigantic over-hyped tentpole movies in the Summer season. Not to give away the end of this review or anything, but you should skip Speed Racer and instead trot a few theaters down the multiplex to see ...

Redbelt (d. David Mamet)

Back when it didn't have quite so many gay connotations, the phrase one would have used to describe writer/director David Mamet is "a man's man." Mamet is the spiritual heir to writers like Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer; tough guys who don't take any nonsense and identify with killers, hustlers and other fringe elements. They like their drinks straight, their women dangerous, and their sports bloody.

Mamet's latest concerns the world of mixed martial arts fighting and, more specifically, the skill and discipline it takes to excel at such one-on-one combat. In his world, once that skill and discipline is applied to a competition with cash involved, corruption invariably follows.

Mike Terry (Chiwetel Eijofor) runs a jiu-jitsu academy out of a seedy gym on a rain-soaked street. His dojo may be run on the cheap, but he places his honor and that of his academy ahead of all else, often to his own financial detriment.

When he chances to encounter Chad, a movie star in a seedy bar (everything is seedy in Redbelt), he helps him out of a jam and Chad thinks that Mike's expertise would give his latest film just the shot of authenticity it needs. But this wouldn't be a David Mamet script if all was as it seems.

Chad is played by Tim Allen who, at first glance, would seem an odd fit for the Mamet-verse. However, Allen gives the role just the right spin of weariness and vacancy and lends his relatively brief part the same sort of authenticity that Chad hopes to lift from Mike: he is that movie star.

Chiwetel Eijofor (pronounced CHEW-it-ell EYE-juh-for) takes the lead as Mike and delivers yet another assured, understated performance. He has a way of looking at the world as if everything and everyone in it is disappointing him, probably because they are. With excellent supporting work in last year's American Gangster, as well as the earlier Children of Men, Inside Man and Serenity, not to mention a tremendous job a few years back as the lead in Stephen Frears's underseen Dirty Pretty Things, Eijofor is on the cusp of full-fledged stardom.

Here, he and Allen and a cast consisting of many of David Mamet's stock company (Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Mrs. Mamet herself Rebecca Pidgeon) all handle the distinctive dialogue with considerable aplomb. The speech rhythms in a Mamet script are clipped and disconnected, full of repetition and masked intent. Questions go unanswered, meaning goes uncomprehended. Not every actor is up to the challenge, but all acquit themselves well here.

There are some problems with Redbelt. I'm still not entirely sure what the secret underlying plot was all about and who exactly stood to benefit from the manipulations of the script (Chad? Mantegna? Jay?). And the film has an ending that one must be thoroughly steeped in martial arts to truly appreciate. But Mamet always has a way of leaving bits of the backstory to the imagination. That's just part of the deal with him.

With great performances and unique dialogue, Redbelt is as compelling as a fifteen-round title bout.

3 1/2 stars.

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