Walking into a David Mamet movie is always a dicey proposition. He’s been directing for more than 20 years and still, there’s nothing even approaching a consensus on whether he’s a genius or just an overly wordy David Lynch knockoff. For me he’s hit and miss. I was indifferent to his 2001 movie Heist, but loved his 2004 film Spartan. Redbelt is his first movie since then, and it fits into an entirely different category than either of his last two: I hated it.
The problem is not his lead, Chiwetel Ejiofor. He plays Mike Terry, a martial arts instructor dedicated to training people to succeed. He shuns competition because he believes it weakens you, and it’s not until later in the film that we come to realize how right he is. Ejiofor is brilliant, as he always is. Here’s an actor who has never met a role he couldn’t absolutely inhabit, even if what’s written on the page he’s working from doesn’t deserve his dedication. If you’ve somehow missed Chiwetel’s past work, make it a point to run out and rent Serenity, in which he shows off far superior martial arts prowess to what Redbelt delivers, or Talk to Me, in which he delivers better dialogue than anything which Mamet’s script throws him.
It’s Mamet who torpedoes his movie. His script is a disaster filled with random, inexplicable occurrences shoehorned in with the express purpose of forcing Mike Terry to do something he doesn’t want to do: compete. Watching a fighter backed into a corner until he’s forced to raise a fist is a tried and true movie formula, but it’s never been done so clumsily here. What happens to Mike Terry never makes a lick of sense, and it only gets more ridiculous and slapdash as the movie wears on. Mamet has a specific direction mapped out for his main character, but seems to have no good idea of how to get there, so he just throws everything he can think of into the script without explanation, and hopes we’ll use our imaginations to fill in the gaps left by reason and common sense.
That might have been forgivable in light of Ejiofor’s stellar performance, had the movie’s fight sequences proved, at the least, somewhat entertaining. They do not. This is a movie rooted in the world of Mix Martial Arts, and though I’m sure the sport’s fanatics will disagree, MMA just isn’t very cinematic. You don’t need to be a boxing expert to thrill to the fancy punches of an expert boxer. You don’t need to know anything about karate to stand up and cheer when the good guy clocks the bad guy with a roundhouse. But MMA boils down to little more than two guys hugging, and there’s just nothing exciting for the average joe in watching shirtless dudes playing grabass and bleeding all over each other. It’s kind of a bore.
And that pretty well sums up Redbelt. It’s a dullsville, a grab bag of random coincidences and bland fight sequences. You’ll love Mike Terry simply because Ejiofor is so good, but Mamet seems to have absolutely no idea what to do with him.