Redbelt – 1 star

David Mamet-speak is one thing.  There is nothing quite like the staccato of the pitiable salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross, and Alec Baldwin’s thunderous sermon to those below him has become so ubiquitous that a generation of frat boys can now recite it – or parts (“coffee is for closers!”) – verbatim.

But Mamet-speak has it limits and when coupled with Mamet’s macho honor philosophy, the results can be toxic.  And thus, we have Redbelt, a bizarre modern moral tale about a martial arts enthusiast (Chiwetal Ejiofor) who spouts a lot of Kung Fu b.s. while negotiating through a plot so byzantine and ridiculous that were I to attempt to encapsulate it, I’d have a stroke.

So, I’ll let Wikipedia do it for me:

While closing his Jiu-jitsu studio one evening, Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is approached by attorney Laura Black (Emily Mortimer), who is seeking the owner of the vehicle she accidentally sideswiped. Off-duty police officer Joe Collins (Max Martini), who was receiving a private lesson from Mike, sees that Laura is distressed and tries to take her coat. Startled, Laura grabs Joe’s gun and fires it; shattering the studio’s front window. To avoid having Laura charged with attempted murder, Mike and Joe agree to conceal the event.

Mike’s insurance, however, will not cover his act of God claim that the window was broken by a strong wind. Mike’s wife Sondra (Alice Braga), whose fashion business profits are the only thing keeping the struggling studio afloat, requests that Mike ask for a loan from her brother Ricardo (John Machado), a mixed martial arts champion. At Ricardo’s nightclub, Mike meets with Sondra’s other brother, Bruno (Rodrigo Santoro), and learns that Joe quit as the club’s bouncer because Bruno never paid him. Mike confronts Bruno about the situation but is rebuffed. Mike then declines Bruno’s offer to fight on the undercard of an upcoming match between Ricardo and Japanese legend, Morisaki (Enson Inoue), which could potentially pay out $50,000. Mike believes competitions with money as the incentive are not honorable and weaken the fighter.

Meanwhile, aging Hollywood action star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) enters the nightclub without security and is accosted by a man with a broken bottle. Mike intervenes and subdues three men in the process. The following day, Mike receives an expensive watch and an invitation to dinner from Chet. Mike gives the watch to Joe to pawn in lieu of his unpaid salary at the nightclub. At the dinner party, Chet’s wife Zena (Rebecca Pidgeon) arranges an informal business deal to buy a large amount of dresses from Sondra’s company. Chet, impressed by Mike, invites him to the set of his current film. As Mike and Sondra leave the dinner, Mike explains his unique training method to Chet’s business associate Jerry Weiss (Joe Mantegna). Before a sparring match, each fighter must draw one of three marbles, two white and one black; whoever draws a black marble has to fight with a handicap.

Mike uses his military experience to answer a few technical questions for Chet on the film set and is offered the role of co-producer. That evening, Mike faxes the details of his training methods to Jerry so they can be used in the film. Joe arrives at the studio and informs Mike that he was suspended from duty for pawning the watch, which turned out to be stolen. During their dinner that evening, Mike relays the information to Jerry who excuses himself to handle the matter, but never returns. At home, Mike learns that the phone numbers that Zena gave Sondra have been disconnected. Sondra is panicky, having borrowed $30,000 from a loan shark to order the fabric for the dresses. As he meets with the loan shark to discuss an extension, Mike notices Bruno and Marty Brown (Ricky Jay) on television using Mike’s marble-drawing method as a promotional gimmick for the undercard fights of Ricardo’s match.

Mike hires Laura to sue, but Marty’s lawyer threatens that if they do not drop the lawsuit, he will give the police an empty shell casing with Laura’s fingerprints, as proof that she attempted to kill an off-duty cop. He also threatens Mike as a witness who covered up the crime by bribing the cop with a stolen watch. When told of the situation, Joe feels responsible and kills himself. Mike feels obligated to help Joe’s financially struggling wife and, in desperate need of money himself, decides to compete as an undercard fighter in the upcoming competition.

At the arena, Mike discovers the fights are being fixed via a magician (Cyril Takayama) using sleight of hand to surreptitiously switch the white and black marbles. Disgusted by this revelation, Mike confronts the conspirators: Marty, Jerry and Bruno who confirm that unknown to the competitors, the fights are handicapped by the fight promoters so as to ensure winning bets. They also reveal that Ricardo is intentionally losing the fight to Morisaki so they can make money on the rematch. Jerry tells Mike that Sondra is the one who told them about Laura shooting the window and Bruno justifies her betrayal by explaining that his sister is too smart to stay with someone who cannot provide for her.

As Mike is exiting the arena, he meets Laura. Their conversation is not audible, but it ends with Laura slapping Mike. Mike then re-enters the arena. He incapacitates several security guards trying to stop him and is ultimately engaged by Ricardo. The audience and camera crews take notice as Mike and Ricardo face off in the arena’s corridors. Inspired by the Professor, an elderly martial arts master attending the match, Mike manages to slip a difficult choke hold and defeats Ricardo. He is approached by Morisaki, who awards Mike with his ivory-studded belt, previously referred to as a Japanese national treasure. Mike is then approached by the Professor himself, who awards Mike the coveted Redbelt.

As my Mom might say, “Jeez-o-flip!”

I am not a Mamet hater.  Oleanna, Glengarry, Homicide, State and Main, House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, these are all very good films, and Mamet displays an authentic American voice in their telling.  His work on films he did not direct, or which did not come from one of his stage plays, such as The Verdict, The Untouchables, The Edge, Hoffa and Ronin, is vivid and accomplished.

Redbelt, however, came out in 2008, about the time someone needed to tell Mamet that his mystical machismo and rat-a-tat dialogue had not only reached their expiration date, but had become as embarrassing as a driver’s hat and leather gloves on a newly divorced man.

Since Redbelt’s release, and critical failure, Mamet has written a few shorts, and episodes for his TV show “The Unit.”  He also wrote a very interesting book explaining his “conversion” from Hollywood liberal to a member of the right, “The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture,” as fine a read as you’ll get if you want to understand the nuts-and-bolts philosophy and precepts of a modern conservative (beyond the human sacrifices of panhandlers and the ritual rape of the land).  Perhaps he’s done with film writing, but if so, Redbelt is both Mamet’s pathetic coda and a testament to his loss of the gift.

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