With a cast that includes fight world luminaries and a handful of earnest combat scenes, Rebelt might be misconstrued as a high-minded follower of Hot Topic trends, maybe some Lincoln Center-worthy Never Back Down, and therefore a serious anomaly within David Mamet’s catalogue. Mamet calls it a fight film, but I suspect he uses the term with idiosyncratic intent. Regardless, I’ve always thought that all his movies were fight films.
Being specific, then, Redbelt is a confused, nearly triumphant tale about an honest man in a dishonest world. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings his unshakably upright bearing to Mike Terry, a jiu-jitsu instructor who refuses to enter potentially lucrative competitions, believing that his participation would shame his school. But his honorable bearing leads to a series of severe short-term problems: debts mount, an unreported crime has consequences, and a single stolen item leaves devastating marks on those who touch it.
The plot is a boa constrictor. Mamet’s fascination is with single incidents that seem containable, each of which joins together in a chain that exerts pressure upon people involved until combined forces squeeze the life out of the weakest links.
Mike Terry is forced into a financial corner when his dojo is damaged, but his fortunes and those of the fabric business run by his wife (Alice Braga) seem ready to take an upswing when Terry saves action movie star Chet Frank (a boozy, effective Tim Allen) during a bar fight. Blinded by the lure of financial security, Terry gives away his dojo’s secrets, and is devastated when they show up in the paws of a fight promoter (Ricky Jay) who is scheduling a fight with the aid of Terry’s brother-in-law. Winding through the course is the unbalanced lawyer (Emily Mortimer, quavering but compelling) who damages Terry’s school, but becomes an unlikely ally.
The series of events is terribly tenuous, but Mamet pushes through the confusing morass with a masterful use of suspense. If Ejiofor’s quiet, persuasive performance is Redbelt‘s soul, suspense is the movie’s blood. Mamet turns several screws at any one time, so there’s no way to predict exactly where the film is heading. I was constantly on my guard, not wanting to invest too much in any one character, lest the ground crumble away. Combine that with Ejiofor’s understated charisma, which insinuated Mike Terry into my concerns, and you’ve got something potent.
As has so often been the case, however, Mamet uses suspense as a smokescreen. He wants us to be so wound up in tension that we don’t notice how thin the plot wears. Disassembled, the movie’s individual parts seem like pieces of several different puzzles. This is a fight film, indeed, but the battles are really between genre conventions: family drama versus gangster picture, movie set satire against martial-arts expose. While the characters are well-drawn, some are too obviously used. Emily Mortimer’s lawyer, in particular, feels less like a person than a tool to broadly illustrate the movie’s moral underpinning.
Right up until the film runs out of gas trying to race to a worthy finish, individual scenes are wonderful. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of Ejiofor’s martial arts instruction, but his repetitive, hushed entreaties to his students feel right as they battle to escape their own weaknesses. Ejiofor’s closest moment with Mortimer is a darkly giddy masterpiece, and already among my favorite moments in all of Mamet’s films.
Ironically, the holds and blows in the few fight scenes aren’t as powerful as Mamet’s dialogue. The final fight, which is at least satisfying by way of displaying Terry’s honor and prowess unbound, builds to a simplistic climax more worthy of a Karate Kid sequel. The story is strong and, yes, honorable enough without resorting to such antics, and Redbelt is finally untied by indulging in exactly the popcorn movie antics it previously held with such lack of regard.