David Mamet's back with a new movie, Redbelt. Mamet players, assemble! Ricky Jay? Check. Joe Mantegna? Check. Rebecca Pidgeon? Check. Vincent Guastaferro? Check. David Paymer? Check.
On the surface, Redbelt sounds like no other Mamet. Of all things, it's about the super-popular fighting style called mixed martial arts (or MMA). Weirder still, Redbelt co-stars Tim Allen. (Freaky.)
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Mike Terry, owner of Southside Jiu-Jitsu, where he instructs on the finer points of the Brazilian martial art: grappling, holds and chokeholds, joint-locks, and escapes. Observing students in the clinch, Terry repeatedly reminds them to control their breath and says, very calmly and with measured tones, "There is no situation that you cannot escape from. You know the escape."
Redbelt's Terry is a singular character in the Mamet universe: While the writer's other strong characters use words like sticks and stones — diatribes or silky lies aimed at opponents, used to gain advantage — Terry is a source of quiet, enduring resistance. Jiu-jitsu fighting is, of course, the perfect occupation for him. And, in watching him overcome the other Mamet dogs barking at him, you feel what is maybe an unprecedented emotion coming from a Mamet work: inspired.
The main storyline in Redbelt involves Terry and Chet Frank (Tim Allen), an action-movie star whom Terry rescues in a bar fight. Frank invites Terry to the set of his new film, Fire Base Fox, and offers him a producer credit in exchange for fight consulting.
Actually, maybe the main plot is about Terry's highly principled but struggling business and how it affects his relationship with his wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), a clothing designer who has sunk all of her savings into his school. Or maybe it's a looming pay-per-view MMA competition between a Brazilian and a Japanese fighter.
Okay, there's a bunch of other important plot threads and mini-dramas and characters to keep up with. In the end, it doesn't matter how you order them. Like most other Mamets, half the fun is disentangling the misdirection and answering the question: Where's the con?
Mamet is himself a jiu-jitsu student, having achieved a purple belt studying under master Renato Magno for the past six years. Though I run the risk of making a gross overstatement, I'll say it anyway: Since it's such a departure from everything that he's written before, the respectful discipline at the center of Redbelt seems to be a character ideal the filmmaker aspires to. Mike Terry is the answer to all those questions Mamet's characters have been yelling at each other for years.
Opening Friday, May 9th