Lorey Sebastian/Sony Pictures Classics
David Mamet/United States 2008

Initially, the world of Mixed Martial Arts comes across as a strange subject for Redbelt, David Mamet’s return to filmmaking after a four-year hiatus. Yet, when one considers some of the milieu’s predominant tropes – most especially its steadfast focus on ancient notions of honorable conduct – it reveals itself to be less foreign to his sensibilities than one might think. The filmmaker, best known for his onscreen depictions of ruthless con games and his blistering sense of the satirical, evokes both in rendering the uneasy mixture of ancient values and commercial inclinations that drive MMA as mass entertainment.

Mamet brings his characteristically hard-edged perspective and knack for raw dialogue to the story of Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Ju-Jitsu instructor who lives life by such a rigid moral code that he’s even willing challenge the professional incarnation of the sport he loves. Mike gets the opportunity to do so after spiraling down a typical Mametian rabbit-hole that opens when a movie star (Tim Allen) and his less than scrupulous manager (Joe Mantegna) recruit him as a combat advisor on the actor’s current shoot. Of course, there’s more to it all than what’s initially apparent and the picture also involves a scheme involving televised fights, an angry Brazilian club owner (Rodrigo Santoro), a lawyer with a drug problem (Emily Mortimer) and Ricky Jay.

The pieces don’t all fit, most egregiously the elements of Hollywood satire that feel recycled from the filmmaker’s superior State and Main. But, the world being evoked has never been seen quite this way on film, if at all. Saturated with the color red and given a slick veneer, the movie is rife with classical visual compositions of the lonely hero fighting the mixed up world. Business and spirituality come in direct conflict as Mike finds his idealistic belief in the sport’s sanctimony and his equally naive disregard for its use in competition called into question by his own financial concerns. Mamet depicts the playing out of the dilemma with typical brutality and spins a potent morality play. It’s good to have him back.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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