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Back at Fighting Weight

Mamet's Redbelt is a return to form.

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REDBELT sss Written and directed by David Mamet With Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alice Braga, Tim Allen, Emily Mortimer, Max Martini, Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna, and David Paymer

Of all the Chicago theater people who've left town for better things, none has been a bigger loss than David Mamet. Like Mike Royko or Nelson Algren, he created an authentic Chicago voice (though his famously stylized dialogue sounds like no Chicagoan you've ever heard). Plays like American Buffalo (1975) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) captured the city's greed, corruption, and lust for success but also its blunt honesty and its lack of pretense or illusion. Mamet drifted away from Chicago in the 80s, lived in New York City and Massachusetts, and finally moved to Los Angeles in 2002. But in a sense the arc of his career has been one long journey from Chicago to Hollywood, and his last few movies as a writer-director—State and Main (2000), Heist (2001), Spartan (2004)—suggested that arc was turning steeply downward.

Redbelt emphatically reverses this decline by combining in near-perfect proportion what Mamet loves and hates about Hollywood. The most interesting aspect of his movie work has always been his ardent embrace of genre, and Redbelt is a classic fight film, with Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things) as an honorable martial arts master forced into the ring for a hyped-up TV match. But nesting inside this familiar archetype is a sour little 70s-style David Mamet play about the lies, calculations, and ice-cold politics of the entertainment industry, as the fighter is befriended and then discarded by a callow TV star (Tim Allen). The result is both a solid commercial property (Redbelt opened last weekend on some 1,300 screens) and a legitimate work of art. That sort of duality was common during the golden age of Hollywood, when the insatiable demand for movies gave studio artisans a fair amount of creative leeway, but these days it's a rarity.

Mamet had already won the Pulitzer Prize for drama by the time he directed his first movie, and with that sort of cachet he might have won financing for some high-toned project. Instead he dove headlong into film noir, and in House of Games (1987) the genre proved a good fit for his dark view of the world. In Homicide (1991) he used the crime genre to explore his feelings about his Jewish heritage, and with The Spanish Prisoner (1997) he proved his mastery of the suspense film. Mamet's action movies have been another story: Spartan is so devoid of personality it might have been made by any industry hack, and when I rented the generically titled Heist a few nights ago, I was nearly an hour into it before I remembered that I'd seen it in the theater. Yet Heist earned more at the box office than Mamet's seven previous films combined.

The nice thing about being treasured for your cynicism is that you can take the money without tarnishing your reputation, and Mamet is particularly well positioned in that regard. His fascination with Hollywood operators has been evident since his 1988 play Speed-the-Plow, in which two producers debate whether to green-light a serious film or an action blockbuster, and he poked fun at the industry's cravenness and duplicity in State and Main and his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog (1997). Bambi vs. Godzilla, Mamet's 2007 book about the art of filmmaking and the perfidies of the movie business, locates the industry's original sin inside the heart of the producer. But no producer could've made Heist or Spartan without a script in hand, so who's to blame for them?

Redbelt is being sold as a martial arts adventure, though the vast majority of its combat is verbal. Fans of the genre will be surprised but not necessarily disappointed, because the story hits harder than Jet Li. Mamet has an instinct for finding the emotional key to a genre, and in the case of the fight film it's the longing not just for dominance but for honor. Redbelt's hero, Mike Terry, is a formidable jujitsu master, but he considers competition demeaning to the art and instead runs a small, financially strapped martial arts academy on LA's rough south side. When a panic-stricken woman (Emily Mortimer) misreads the movements of an off-duty cop (Max Martini) who studies there, grabs his gun, and shoots out the front window, the cop sweeps the incident under the rug to avoid disgracing his master. But Mike's insurance won't cover the shattered window because there's no police report. In the complex sequence of events that follows, Mike's money problems are continually compounded by his uncompromising sense of honor, until he has no choice but to take part in a mixed martial arts competition on pay-per-view.

If Mike represents honor in its purest form, then dishonor is embodied by Chet Frank, an aging TV action hero who thinks of no one but himself. One night Chet wanders into a bar without his bodyguards, looking to get laid, and soon he finds himself on the wrong end of a broken beer bottle. After Mike rescues him, swiftly disabling three armed men, Chet sends him a $20,000 wristwatch and invites him and his wife (Alice Braga) to dinner at his home in Santa Monica. Before long Chet's silky smooth manager (Joe Mantegna) has invited Mike to join their TV show as a producer and technical adviser, a windfall that promises to solve all Mike's money problems. But when he inadvertently offends them, they withdraw their friendship as quickly as they offered it, retreating behind their high wall of money and power.

This sort of vicious score-settling is classic Mamet, and the scummy world of fight promoters gives him another rich landscape. ("We need a gimmick," insists Ricky Jay as a particularly venal specimen. "Or else it's just two monkeys in the ring.") But ultimately Redbelt is exceptional less for its cynicism than for its idealism. The script sprang from Mamet's own experience learning jujitsu, and the noble philosophy behind it seems to have shaken him out of his creative complacency. After exploring one cutthroat subculture after another, he must have been troubled and challenged by the idea that the truly strong man is the one who stands back from the contest. That sort of thinking won't get him very far in Hollywood, but it's clearly stoked his imagination.v

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