As a nearly lifelong fan of David Mamet’s plays and films, it pains me to report that his mixed martial arts drama, Redbelt, is a lame, even amateurish piece of work. Not amateurish in technical terms — scene for scene, it’s his best-looking film to date — but inept in terms of writing and depicting believable human behavior. For me it confirms the suspicion, born of the increasingly dimwitted blowhard tone of Mamet’s nonfiction, that the artist who made the psychology of con-games one of his central themes has committed the elementary con-man mistake of believing his own B.S.
I don’t know what kind of film Mamet told himself he was making during the production, but when you look past the trademarked clipped dialogue and the virtuoso cussing, all you’re left with is a remake of a Rocky movie. Not the good first Rocky movie, either, but the fifth one — the one that had everyone hoping Sylvester Stallone would get hit by lightning if he ever tried to make a sixth installment. There’s even a climactic tussle in which the spiritually pure fighter, a martial arts teacher who deplores the commercialization of his sport, triumphs over a show-biz grifter type, and I’d expected a lot better from the man who wrote Glengarry Glen Ross.
Failing that, however, I’d be willing to settle for some decent fight scenes, but even if Mamet does have a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu he is strictly a white belt when it comes to staging coherent action sequences. I realize that the crucial moments in MMA bouts are usually close-in and hard to follow, but any given cablecast (or some of the backyard bouts on YouTube) will give you a better sense of the sport’s skill set. Since many of the actors are themselves MMA fighters like Randy Couture and John Machado, it’s puzzling that the martial arts set-pieces are so poorly filmed.
As for the rest of the movie, I never once bought the hero’s personal code of honor, in which it is unseemly to compete in martial arts tournaments but perfectly okay to pawn somebody else’s gift for a quick buck, nor did I ever once believe in the motivations that lead an important secondary character to commit suicide and leave his family facing ruin rather than “dishonor the academy.”
The performances are fluid and naturalistic in a way that previous Mamet-directed films have aimed for but never achieved, and yet I find Mamet’s stiffly directed filmmaking debut, House of Games, infinitely superior to Redbelt. The performers — particularly Chewitel Ejiofor as the instructor and the divine Alice Braga as his wife — keep the film very watchable, but at some point I simply lost interest in the story and started asking myself why I was watching this silly crap. Maybe it was the tough-love scene (above) in which the instructor puts a deeply troubled woman — a rape victim barely able to function in everyday life — into a chokehold and makes her act out stabbing him. It’s meant to show her being re-empowered and cured of her anxieties, but to me it played like another round of victimization for the woman, with the sadism made even more rancid by sanctimoniousness.
“There’s always an escape,” the hero tells his clients over and over. “You just have to find it.” Fortunately for the rest of us, the key to escaping Redbelt is as close as the DVD remote.