May 15, 2008

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Redbelt (R)
David Mamet uses jujitsu to turn its occasionally weak story and slightly too-large cast into a focused study of a particularly cool form of martial arts in Redbelt, a spiffy little film about a cucumber-cool jujitsu instructor.

Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is said jujitsu instructor — supremely confident, due to the mental clarity provided by his study of martial arts. He says things like “there is always an escape, you know the escape” to his student, which seems to mean both that there is always a way out of a particularly difficult hold and that there is always a way out of a rough situation in life — in both cases the answer is inside yourself. His wife Sondra (Alice Braga) probably wishes that more of this rich internal character would turn into a rich external lifestyle — Mike’s students at his jujitsu studio are devoted but there aren’t quite enough of them to always pay the bills. The couple is mostly living off the profits from Sondra’s clothing- and textiles-related company.

Events send Mike to a bar owned by Sondra’s brother to ask for a loan. Mike ends up in a bar fight defending Chet Frank (Tim Allen), a self-destructive actor. The actor, as fascinated by Mike’s cool exterior and seemingly superhuman abilities as Mike’s students are, invites Mike to his house and even to his movie set, where he wants Mike to take a role in advising the filmmakers on its fight scenes. But Chet’s world is as full of slippery moral slopes as Mike’s is full of straight and narrow paths. Soon, Mike finds himself in a situation where the only way out might be a kind of fight for honor (and money) — exactly the sort of thing, as years of martial arts films tell us, that a respectful-to-the-art guy like Mike is loath to do.

Redbelt is packed tight with great performances — many of them small in number of lines but big enough in impact. Max Martini as an earnest cop and Cathy Cahlin Ryan (best known as Vic Mackey’s wife on The Shield) as his shaky wife. Ricky Jay (a Mamet regular) as a shady promoter of mixed martial arts fights and Joe Mantegna as Chet’s handler. Emily Mortimer as a fragile lawyer and Rebecca Pidgeon (another Mamet regular) as Chet’s wife. Some of the parts offer the actors only a handful of lines but these are David Mamet lines, full of lots of pauses and silences that actors can fill with all sorts of meaning.

(And, for those who aren’t sure if they could place Mamet in a writer/director lineup, the telltale sign is the dialogue. You get lots of scenes with back and forth like: “The check bounced.” “The check?” “The check. The check that you gave me.” “You’re talking to me about the check?” “The check bounced, it bounced. There’s no money.” “You’re telling me there’s no money.” “No money. The check bounced.” This can sound deeply pretentious but the good actors — and Ejiofor is a particularly good actor — are the ones who can make it sound like something approaching natural speech. The spareness and repetition can be distracting but it can also get you into a sort of rhythm — as though it changes your heartbeat or your breathing — that pulls you more fully into the universe of the movie.)

But the biggest surprise in this movie full of surprisingly good small performances and surprising twists and kinks in the plot is Tim Allen. Mr. Home Improvement is not the sitcom goofball you remember from TV or from the cringe-inducing Santa Clause movies. I don’t think this role is quite on the level of John Travolta in Pulp Fiction for changing the way an audience looks at an actor, but it’s in that vein, it’s on that road. Allen here is something altogether different, with several more layers to him than the most special of very special episodes of Tim “the tool man” Taylor’s life. I’m not sure where Allen goes from here, but a good HBO or FX series could get him that second act that can be so elusive for actors.

This isn’t the perfect movie but Redbelt is perfectly Mamet. It takes all sorts of twists, some a little half-hearted, lets its cast balloon a little too much but then pulls us back in to a pinpoint-focused ending. And it sells us on the clarity of jujitsu, the pinnacle of which, at least in this movie, is earning a red belt. Redbelt might not be such a champion but it is certainly a strong contender. B

Rated R for strong language. Written and directed by David Mamet, Redbelt is an hour and 39 minutes long and is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.