Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun May 18, 2008 9:52 pm 
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Mamet creates a real hero

If you know your Mamet well you can watch Redbelt for the significant ways it's un-Mamet-like and it will be more enjoyable. If you don't know your Mamet you may find it just as baffling and off-putting as Heist, Spartan, The Spanish Prisoner, etc., because its plot still moves forward through a series of surprising and potentially alienating twists.

Though Mamet's famously mannered dialog really works better on the stage, the greater issue remains the story. Those twists are harder to take in the realistic-looking context of a movie. They make for a cinema that's enjoyable in a head-trip kind of way but uninvolving. That's still partly true again this time. As David Edelstein says in his nonetheless favorable review of Redbelt, its plot is "so bizarrely convoluted it barely holds together on a narrative level." Maybe Edelstein's right that this is typical of fight movies. Genre elements are still definitely there. You can see Redbelt, for a while anyway, as a grownup Karate Kid, with Chiwetel Ejiofor the Mr. Miyagi and a cop named Joey his Daniel-san. But the convolution is more typical of Mamet than of any genre sources. His double-crosses, often involving Hollywood people and crooked promoters(and that's particularly true here), are more rapid-fire and intricate in Mamet than in B-picture equivalents.

But after the cold blur of Mamet's 2004 Spartan, Redbelt seems a markedly fresher and stronger piece of work. Some call it a "return to form"--again a simplification, since it's such a departure. Some have in fact attributed the improvement to change of form--to Mamet's doing noir this time, or a prize fight story, or even a Rocky with "mixed martial arts" (jujitsu really) the updated replacement of boxing--this time supposedly not even getting in the way of the new (to Mamet) genre. What is the genre, actually? It's pretty mixed.

Critics have drawn opposing conclusions from the new genre. Either the dip into old fashioned meaty B-picture structures makes Redbelt a winner because it's more forceful and accessible than Mamet's usual hide-and-seek bluffs. Or the Mamet ornate mannerisms are absurd in an otherwise conventional action setting and it's a flop.

It's not a flop, and those who complain the fights aren't specific enough are surely missing how well the passive, defensive methods of jujitsu are defined and illustrated in the film early on so they can be appreciated later. The skeleton of the fight story trajectory is unquestionably there, but with typically clever differences slipped in. The movie (apparently) ends with a big staged public competition surrounded by the paraphernalia of audience and promotion and suspense about outcome. Like an old-style boxing flick the movie refers to gambling, fixed fights, payoffs, prizes. But first of all this isn't about boxing--"Boxing's dead," one of the promoters says--and Mamet even takes a lot of personal pleasure in working with this different sport, using his own knowledge from five years of training in it.

Actually the important difference is Mamet's departure, not from previous genres or their conventions, but from his usual cynicism, which makes the ending far less routine and mechanical than Spartan's, less cold and clever than any of his previous endings were. The source of this difference is in the fundamental nature of the new sport Mamet has grafted onto the form; the hero's dedication to it significantly changes the tone of the proceedings and the way they end. Unlike just any conventional athlete, Mike Terry (Ejiofor) practices and teaches a Brazilian form of jujitsu--his wife Sondra (Alice Braga) is Brazilian--and therefore follows the Bushido code. This is not only not boxing. It's a philosophy, and as we know, its focus is not winning a staged contest but triumphing over any enemy in a conflict. Redbelt is a martial arts movie with a hero who succeeds to the end in staying outside the system. Mike never intends to and does not participate in a promoted public fight (though Mamet just barely dodges that--with his usual slickness about plot).

This is where Mamet completely deviates from his usual world of one cynical double-cross after another. Unlike the underdog, Mike has nothing to prove. His dojo is financially unsuccessful not because he's some kind of hitherto floundering loser but simply because he is--as he must be--indifferent to money. He is in peak condition and never loses, but when he triumphs it's only to make a point, not prove himself. This may link him with Mr. Miyagi. But unlike Miyagi, Mike fights, and defeats, a lot of people on-screen. This is so much an action movie and Ejiofor is so convincing that the dialog very rarely sounds mannered this time.

If you understand what Mamet's doing and how that's different from both Mamet's usual routines and the sports genre film, the ending isn't hasty or confused so much as emotionally satisfying and right. If you insist, you can say it's just Rocky for grownups who like Eastern philosophy; but that's something awfully new for this writer/director. As usual for Mamet, Redbelt isn't realistic. But this time he isn't just being clever: the movie leads not to "Ah ha!" but simply a satisfied "Ah!" This time Mamet doesn't give us a manipulated character who does or doesn't survive: he gives us a real hero. This is where the excellent Ejiofor is so essential and so cool. Mike is a character Mamet never conceived before--and a hero more convincing in his iron resiliency than is usual, thanks to the calm intensity and inner peace the actor effortlessly projects.

There are plenty of other reasons in the cast for being happy. Everyone is unusually good and those characters who seem cheap and slick are that way because they're from the world of cheap and slick people. Those who come closer to Mike Terry, like his wife, and the initially dodgy woman lawyer Laura Black (Emily Mortimer), who becomes his partner in conflict, and his black belt, Joe Ryan (Max Martini), are thoroughly warm and convincing.

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