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Talk Hard

David Mamet's Latest Hatches A Character Who Hits Better With His Fists Than His Mouth

KNIFE MOVES: Chiwetel Ejiofor Teaches Emily Mortimer How to Fight Back.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 5/7/2008

The last thing anybody expected from writer/director David Mamet was a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Mamet--America's pugilistic stage/cinema poet of the working man, company man, con man, and, most recently, military man--has forged a prolifically consistent career charting the ruses men tell themselves and each other in an effort to get ahead. Mamet's men typically spar with chipped-tooth words, not fists, and literalizing such combat almost feels beneath him. Almost. Television's The Unit has given Mamet the chance to put his musically blunt dialogue into characters who also know their way around M-16s and carotid artery choke holds. Finally, Mamet is primed to put actual brawn behind his muscular speech. Yes, consider Redbelt David Mamet's Bloodsport.

And then don't be disappointed when the Muscles From Brussels' name doesn't appear in the opening credits, because Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as the typical Van Damme character. A veteran of the first Gulf War, Ejiofor's Mike Terry runs a martial-arts gym in Los Angeles, where he teaches local law enforcement types not to fight, but to prevail. And that language clarification has meaning--Mamet's characters are defined not only by what they do but what they say and how they choose to say it. And Mike purposefully differentiating between "fight" and "prevail" is just as important a foible as when he prevents action-movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) from getting his ass kicked in a bar.

That internalized confidence is one of the oldest tropes in martial Asian cinema, going back as far as early samurai flicks and on up through the Shaw Brothers actioners, The Karate Kid and, now, Tony Jaa's movies. True warriors only fight when pushed, not because they can. Honor is as important as knowing how to drop somebody with a knee to the forehead. And, conveniently enough, the fight means nothing without the reasons why.

Redbelt is on a familiarly Mamet road to pit Mike against a mixed martial arts TV champ, and Mamet orchestrates it with his usual streamlined aplomb. Just as Jean-Pierre Melville and Jim Jarmusch absorbed Asian movies into their own indelible styles in 1967's Le Samourai and 1999's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, respectively, so Mamet takes the form and infuses it with his scheming men and women. Mike's gym doesn't bring in much money, making it hard for his wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), to manage his business and her textile and design aspirations. But after Mike intervenes on Chet's behalf, their fortunes start to turn. Chet invites Mike down to his latest movie set to check out some of the fight choreography, and Chet's wife, Zena (Rebecca Pidgeon), takes a shine to Sondra's designs, and has the capital and contacts to give her business a much-needed boost.

Of course, when the peripheral characters to that story line involve familiar Mamet faces Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna, and David Paymer, you know somebody's going to be getting the short end of the deal soon--and it's not going to be the people with the posh house, handlers, agents, and lawyers. The way Redbelt winds Mike and Sandra into Chet's world is knotted like a long con, leaving somebody 30 large in the pocket of a local loan shark and Mike with his back pressed so hard against the wall he might have to battle in the televised fight club.

And with his alert eyes and boxer's body, Ejiofor inhabits Mike with a deft imbalance of words and might. In the controlled environment of training, Mike is a man of nimble mind, tongue, and deeds, able to talk his students through their grappling escapes and illustrate how thinking is as important as brute force; he can even convince a skittish lawyer (Emily Mortimer) that what he has to offer can help her. In the rest of the world, though, Mike is but another naive mark, pinballed between men who regard his revered martial art as just another hustle.

And anybody who has seen only one kung fu movie knows what happens next. That the fighting here isn't as visually acrobatic as contemporary kung fu flicks doesn't matter much, because most of the real punches are fists flying out of people's mouths and eyes. Mike is yet another of Mamet's American men in limbo, stuck between trying to play by the rules and wondering if, when he sees his chance, he should venture outside them--just in this instance, that man is pushed. Redbelt is far from Mamet's best movie--or script for that matter--but it's taut and unfussy enough to remind you that when he's on his game, he's still one of the most adroit authors of dialogue as a window into a man's being that his era of the stage and screen has seen.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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