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As I watched David Mamet's new film "Redbelt," I thought of a cousin of mine and something he did. He is a millionaire, and yet he once manipulated my sister-in-law into giving him $6,000. My cousin could have written a check for that amount and never missed it, but it served him more to get it out of my sister-in-law. Why did he do it? We'll never know; motivations are not relevant to him, nor to David Mamet either, and that is what is so fascinating about Mamet's own work. What you see is what you get. People do things; that's enough for him. So, for example, we'll never know what made Blake, the vicious sales manager in "Glengarry Glen Ross," do what he does. We'll never know why Debra, in "Oleanna," accuses her professor of sexual harassment. Motives, psychological underpinnings, are irrelevant to him. People do things, sometimes good, sometimes bad; he says get over it. People show us their actions, never their psyches.
And so it is in "Redbelt," whose title signifies the recognition of the ultimate fighting warrior. Mike Terry, who owns a jujuitsu school in Los Angeles, is in fact like you and me; that is, he is a moral man. But in Mamet's world we are small fish to be eaten by the sharks if it should be to their advantage. Mike is played by the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who can take the screen and hold it without ever seeming like someone 'acting' the role, in quotes, in everything from "Dirty Pretty Things" to "Red Dust" to "Kinky Boots." Mike is married to a clothing designer from Brazil, played by Alice Braga. The jujuitsu school is not doing well financially, though, and then one rainy night a strange thing happens; a woman (Emily Mortimer) comes by to say she sideswiped his car; a police officer, Joe Collins (Max Martini), who's a student of Mike's, has his gun out of his holster, it goes off and shatters the picture window of the school.
From that one moment, a whole world spirals out. That world includes the martial arts star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) whom Mike saves from a beating in a bar, Chet's film producer, played by Mamet regular Joe Mantegna, and a fight promoter played by Ricky Jay. They each find a way to envelop Mike in something that is beyond the understanding of a moral man, but is very much to their advantage. As Mike slowly comes to understand what's happened, he ends up on the fight card of an ultimate-fight match, one in which one fighter is given a handicap - an arm tied to his side, or a blindfold - and must then fight with that handicap.
Mamet is exquisitely slow in letting us in on the various cons of "Redbelt," so that we see, as Mike does, first one and then another and then still a third. Trying to sort them out and put them together is the game that the film plays with us. Mamet's director of photography is the Academy Award winner Robert Elswit (he won for "There Will Be Blood"), whose camera placement and lighting capture everything that Mamet wishes us to see. This is a film that requires a lot from the audience but will reward them, as it did me, as they wonder about cons, motives, and even morality, afterward. I've come to love this film.
5/9/08 <! new pasted review ends on line above>