David Mamet may not be the visual stylist that Jean-Pierre Melville was, but in most other respects, his Redbelt is faithfully cast in the tradition of the great French auteur’s Le Samouraï. As in Melville’s brooding gangster classic, Mamet’s film focuses on a lonely, figurative samurai devoted to a governing code, in this case a jiu-jitsu instructor named Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who runs a Los Angeles martial arts academy where he trains both lay people and cops. Already low on cash, much to his clothing designer wife’s (Alice Braga) chagrin, Mike becomes ensnared in grave personal and financial circumstances after an accidental shooting at the academy and a bar fight involving a movie star (Tim Allen). The gears of fate soon begin turning, and Mamet takes thoughtful time laying out the forces that will, in due course, thrust Mike into the professional mixed-martial arts fighting arena which he shuns because, as the teachings of his red-belted master counsel, “A competition is not a fight.”
As shot by Robert Elswit, Redbelt is clean and compact, its cinematography and editing exhibiting a clipped vigorousness that thankfully isn’t complemented by the writer-director’s usual, rat-a-tat-tat staccato verbal sparring, which makes only very occasional appearances. Brutal briskness characterizes the sporadic hand-to-hand combat sequences, though the story’s prime concern is violence against not the body but the soul, as Mike’s struggle isn’t really against any particular opponent but a life and world in which wealth, status, and comfort are valued more than honesty, honor, and loyalty. It’s a moral conflict expertly conveyed by Ejiofor, who, whether delivering stern lessons to his police officer student and friend Joe (Max Martini) or dealing with a host of shady businessmen (including Mamet regulars Rickey Jay and Joe Mantegna), smartly expresses his character’s staunch conviction with hints of sorrow born from the recognition that devotion to his “code of the warrior” and its rituals inevitably means pain for himself and those he cares about.
This being a Mamet work, a central con naturally figures into the proceedings, and despite the capable orchestration of that subterfuge, the knowledge that a climactic revelation lies in wait diffuses at least a measure of suspense. Yet unlike so many of the director’s previous cinematic puzzle games, Redbelt cares far less about tricking its audience than about plumbing its protagonist’s psyche in a way both viscerally exciting and intensely analytical, a nifty trick that’s aided by a host of uniformly sturdy but tonally divergent supporting actors (dainty Emily Mortimer, chilly Rebecca Pidgeon, hammy Rodrigo Santoro, goofy Tim Allen) who don’t, at first glance, seem well-suited to coexist with each other. Yet that, ultimately, is the real trick Mamet pulls off: finding a way to make his latest’s disparate elements—its formulaic sports industry critique, its narrative twists, its mismatched performances, and its sometimes overt, sometimes understated articulations of theme—perfectly coalesce into a precise, invigorating portrait of the difficulty and nobility of remaining true to oneself.