REDBELT (2008) : D.Mamet : 6/10
"Which is the most reasonable, and does his duty best: he who stands aloof from the struggle of life, calmly contemplating it, or he who descends to the ground, and takes his part in the contest?"
W M Thackeray, Pendennis
This quotation – which sums up David Mamet's daft martial-arts drama Redbelt to a nicety - appears as frontispiece in his 1988 play Speed-the-Plow's printed edition. Though not one of Mamet's more acclaimed works, Speed-the-Plow caused much ballyhoo back in the day, as it provided Madonna with what turned out to be a less-than-rapturously-received Broadway debut. While she hasn't returned to the stage, Michigan's most famous daughter has plugged on with movie roles – without ever really threatening to achieve the kind of success she's enjoyed with her "day job."
Hailing from the next-door state of Illinois, Mamet – who enjoyed considerable acclaim with the scripts for The Verdict and The Untouchables in the 80s, and whose early directorial efforts House of Games, Things Change and Homicide were warmly received – likewise must surely realise that while he's still one of the giants of American 'theater,' when he devotes his energy to cinema the results are now greeted with disdain or disinterest.
2004's nifty spy-drama Spartan was "horribly mismarketed" by Warner Bros and received only the most cursory of releases in the UK – requiring this critic to make a 260-mile round trip from Sunderland to Sheffield. No such exertions were required for Mamet's tenth writer-director effort, Redbelt – which surprisingly obtained exposure at Sunderland city centre's very mainstream-oriented multiplex. I found myself sole patron of the 9:25 screening on a damp Monday night – and the $7m-budgeted picture hasn't found much favour in the States, taking less than $2.5m. Spartan, which cost around $15m, took just under $4.4m from a much wider release.
What adds an extra layer of irony to these figures is that, in between Spartan and Redbelt, Mamet's Bambi Vs Godzilla : On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business was published by Faber & Faber. It's a collection of his snarkily erudite writings for publications including The Guardian: "Life in Hollywood seems to have ground to a standstill. We have fewer and fewer films, and these are of diminishing worth and ever-inflated production costs. It is enough to drive one to the fainting couch."
Enough for many, but not for a man's man like Mamet – who's instead been working out his frustrations on the martial-arts dojo. These experiences fed directly into Redbelt, a character-study of serenely stoical jiu-jitsu professor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose personal code of honour prohibits him from taking part in contests such as those staged in the increasingly commercialised and lucrative world of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts.) A series of wildly unlikely contrivances ultimately compels Mike to put aside his principles and get into the ring during a televised showcase organised by various shady agents, devious Hollywood hangers-on and dodgy businessmen.
This is, to say the least, all very old-fashioned stuff, with scenes and situations familiar from dozens of fight-pictures down the years – and Mamet does hint that he's aware of the corniness of Mike's rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-redemption trajectory. But, as often happens with Mamet's movies, at a certain point the seriousness and aphorism-studded portentousness of the enterprise is fatally undermined by the coincidence-dependent melodrama of what actually unfolds. There are numerous laughable sequences here including, most unfortunately, the supposedly poignant final moment – which pivots around the fabled 'red-belt' of the title.
It's not quite fair to reject Redbelt as a ludicrous, self-important compendium of absurdities, however – there are incidental pleasures and grace-notes aplenty, from the splendidly no-nonsense opening titles on: Robert Elswit's limpid, fluent cinematography; a performance of rock-solid believability from Ejiofor (quite some feat, given the craziness unfolding around him); some delightful supporting turns from a cast studded with members of Mamet's established "stock company." Mrs Mamet, Rebecca Pidgeon, is predictably present, though better value is provided by the ever-welcome Joe Mantegna (not given nearly enough to do) and, best of all, Ricky Jay, who gets at least laugh pretty much every time he opens his mouth. Mamet's fondness for the "three Rs" – repetition, repetition and repetition – can often become tiresome and/or silly. Jay, however, makes the patter fly. He makes the patter fly.
99m (BBFC timing)
director : David Mamet (Spartan, Heist, State and Main, etc)
editor : Barbara Tulliver (Lady in the Water, Spartan, Signs, etc)
seen 29.Sep.08 Sunderland (Empire cinema : £5.80)