David Mamet is going around saying that Redbelt is not a martial arts movie. That’s a bit disingenuous, because basically it is a martial arts movie. With a difference. The things that make it different from the usual R-rated urban actioner in which the protagonists merely punch each other silly are things we’ve come to recognize collectively as the Mamet touch — the rhythmic dialogue, the steel trap structure of the scenario, the regular Mamet players, etc. Take away those and it’s just another junk-foo revenge flick.
Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his wife Sondra (Alicia Braga) run a storefront martial arts studio in Los Angeles, teaching Brazilian-style jiu-jitsu. Business is so-so. One rainy night, a distraught and somewhat flaky attorney named Laura Black (Emily Mortimer) barges into the studio and has a brief, confused run-in with one of Mike’s departing students, an LAPD officer named Joe Collins (Max Martin). A shot is fired from Joe’s service revolver, it breaks the front window of the studio, but Joe seemingly disarms the situation by letting the shooter, Laura, go home and blaming a gust of wind for the broken window. It’s the wrong thing to do.
Thus is set in motion a wave of coincidences and purposeful actions that completely engulf Mike. He and Sondra are broke, and when the insurance company refuses to pay for the new window, Mike goes to his brother-in-law, Bruno Silva (Rodrigo Santoro), a thuggish nightclub owner with connections to the “ultimate fighting” business, for a quick loan. Bruno refuses, but another chance encounter — or is it? — in the club leads Mike to Hollywood movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen, a long way from The Santa Clause), who offers Mike a job on an Iraq War film he’s shooting.
Fast-talking Chet also steers the increasingly bewildered Mike, who’s got a reputation as one of LA’s top martial artists, to a chorus of shady characters (Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay) involved in prize fight promotion. Meanwhile, Mike’s wife Sondra suddenly finds herself in the textile business with Chet’s wife (Rebecca Pidgeon). One thing leads to another, and soon Mike is forced to compete as part of the under-card in a big mixed martial arts tournament on cable TV. The main bout is between the Brazilian (John Machado) and Japanese (Enson Inoue) champions, and even though Mike has sworn to himself never to compete, he needs the $50,000 prize money to pay his debts. Exactly why the promoter needs Mike is unclear.
If martial arts movie fans recognize the set-up, that’s because it’s pretty much the same chain of bad luck and wicked designs used in countless fight films — the mechanism that gets the good guy into a brawl with the bad guy. Bruce Lee thumps some goons at a fruit stand. Jackie Chan insults the head of a rival kung-fu academy. Steven Seagal glares at someone. Then, before you know it, there’s a major score to settle and we have a duker.
The good guy usually has moral reasons to avoid fighting, but they’re always outweighed by some unforeseen calamity or other — an orphaned kid the hero has sworn to protect, a young woman menaced by a lecherous crime boss, or, in Mike’s case, his poor taste in in-laws. Also, the paths of numerous West Side Los Angeles bouncers, bent cops, and racketeers crossed his once too often, and now it’s his turn to tango. What’s a top-notch fighter to do? Bust some heads, Fred.
It’s always fun to watch the Mamet stock company springing a trap on an unwary victim. No Jean-Claude Van Damme flick ever had crooks as interesting as Mantegna, Jay, Pidgeon, David Paymer, J.J. Johnston, Jack Wallace, and Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. They’ve had plenty of practice, and if Redbelt at times comes to resemble the “Ultimate Fighter” version of House of Games, at least we’re treated to the old familiar hocus-pocus in a slightly new wrapper. Ricky Jay could recite the Pledge of Allegiance and make it sound like a scam.
Evidently the famously macho writer-director Mamet became a real-life devotee of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and is now convinced that traditional boxing is “dead as Woodrow Wilson.” Be that as it may, British-born actor Ejiofor, who lent his lean and hungry look to Dirty Pretty Things, Children of Men, and American Gangster, is convincing as the reluctant combatant. Moral nobility suits him. By the time he utters the movie’s tag line, “I’m going to rip it up” (every fight movie has a tag line, even a Mamet fight movie), we’ve already seen him demonstrate his skill on his students, barroom plug uglies, and assorted ringside hangers-on. Aside from the Mamet regulars, the other acting prize in this intellectualized fistic frolic goes to Mortimer as the catalyst of the piece. Mamet capitalizes on her essential screwiness as well as her innocent face.
The violence and criminality in Redbelt is openly on display. We could say Mamet revels in it. Not so for Claude Lelouch in his coy literary character study Roman de Gare, the story of a ghost writer (Dominique Pinon) who takes unusual steps to get out from under the famous novelist (Fanny Ardant) he works for.
Writer-director Lelouch, the softer contemporary of the French New Wave (A Man and a Woman, Les Misérables), teases us a bit at first with his lead character. Is Pinon’s Pierre Laclos the escaped child-rapist-murderer all of France is talking about, or just a frustrated, lonely man with a funny face? And what’s the story behind Judith Ralitzer (Ardant), the best-selling novelist whose books are so wildly uneven in quality? Furthermore, how does Huguette (Audrey Dana) figure into it, other than as a troubled Parisian hairdresser whose trip with her fiancé back to her family home in the French Alps goes to pieces?
Lelouch’s splintered narrative (written with Pierre Uytterhoeven), mostly related in flashback, plays games with the characters without delivering much of a payoff. The Ardant novelist character and her assistant/masseuse seem worthy of more screen time, especially as an investigation into the pitfalls and illusions of celebrity culture. But the heart of this too-sly, too-fractured scenario is the curious relationship of Pierre and Huguette, a pair of marginal individuals shacked up far off the beaten path in a rustic farmhouse in the mountains, pretending to be lovers — the ghost and the misfit.