Making a film can be a lot like making a stew. There's a lot of factors to balance--actors, special effects, story and dialogue--and only the best cooks can get things simmering just right. For the better part of three decades, David Mamet has been a great cook. The playwright-turned-screenwriter/director burst into the Hollywood spotlight with films like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Glengarry Glen Ross. Rife with twists, turns and complex dialogue, Mamet's films have been both lauded and criticized for their complexity. His latest outing, Redbelt, is par for the course.
Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the owner and operator of a Los Angeles gym, training his students both Brazilian jiujitsu and how to live good lives. Unfortunately, this approach to business and life has left Terry's gym hanging on the purse strings of his long-suffering wife Sondra, who wishes her husband would find a way to make some money. A chance encounter between Terry, a troubled woman and his prize pupil (a cop) results in a gunshot, a broken window and the beginning of a precarious set of changes to Terry's life.
Redbelt is not really about Brazilian jiujitsu or mixed martial arts at all. Mamet, a purple belt in jiujitsu himself, uses the martial arts world to showcase the difference between those with principles and those without them. Throughout the film, Mamet drives home his message: those who live in excess are violating their principles. As such, Terry's principled, almost poverty is contrasted with wealthy loan sharks, actors and fight promoters. During these interactions though, Mamet often throws subtly out the window, seemingly turning on a flashing neon sign that shouts "these are the bad guys."
Unfortunately, the film spends far too much time setting up conflicts with verbal acrobatics than actually showing any. After a gunshot shatters the front window of Terry's gym, he goes to ask his brother-in-law for money. This scene sets off a chain reaction of other scenes introducing new characters and long dialogues, almost none of which seem to lead to anything until the final 25 minutes of the film. The resulting finale snaps and crackles, but by avoiding the standard sports movie cliche ending, it is less satisfying than it should have been, given the endless preamble.
Like most Mamet projects, Redbelt is at least blessed with a talented cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor, perhaps best known for his roles in Dirty Pretty Things and Kinky Boots, earns the vast majority of the film's screen time and transforms Mike Terry from a person spouting complex verbiage into a multi-dimensional character. Emily Mortimer continues a string of good performances as a troubled woman who becomes Terry's pupil. Alice Braga is solid as Terry's wife, but doesn't have much to do. Stunningly, Tim Allen ends up delivering, arguably, the best performance of his less-than-illustrious film career as an action film star who encounters Terry in a bar. Mamet's regular crew of Ricky Jay, Rebecca Pidgeon and Joe Mantegna also appear, but take a noticeable backseat to Ejiofor.
When the mixture is just right, a stew can be a fantastic meal. However, should the ingredients be mismatched or delivered in unsatisfying proportions, it can devolve into a sour concoction. David Mamet's Redbelt is unlikely to completely turn moviegoers stomachs, but it's also very far from being a gourmet offering.