A movie by David Mamet is the last place you'd expect to find Tim Allen as star and a story revolving around the world of mixed martial arts. But it's also, in part, a movie about the suspicious entertainment industry.
Then again, things are never what they seem in a work by Mamet, which is true for "Redbelt," on the surface a look at a man whose moral code is tested. For a summer movie, such subject matter is already heady stuff. But as usual with Mamet, the surface can conceal dangerous undercurrents, and "Redbelt" draws us into a world at once familiar and filled with uncertainty.
The story hinges on two crucial scenes that set up themes of character and fortune. In the first we are introduced to Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a jujitsu instructor who tells his grappling students, "A man distracted is a man defeated." As he repeats those words, anyone familiar with Mamet will instinctively perk up, assured the sentence will come back to haunt him. It's not important to say exactly what happens next, except that, typical of Mamet, it's quick and violent and funny, and also insignificant and life-shattering. It all depends on perspective.
Mike is a man of character who's built his business around it, and he'll soon be tested by this chance occurrence and another, set up by the film's second plot-defining scene. Mike is visiting his brother-in-law when he gets involved in a bar fight, saving a celebrity named Chet Frank (Tim Allen) from a man wielding a knife. Again, Mike does what's right for no reason, and again it brings a host of possible outcomes. Frank is grateful enough to give Mike a lavish gift, invite him to dinner and eventually offer him and his wife fabulous new connections and opportunities. Will these be good things? If you think you know, you don't know Mamet.
Mamet might be called the last writer of film noir, or at least its type of dialogue, which has surely inspired him. His movies have always contained fisticuffs of the verbal kind, punchy dialogue that is at once unreal and intriguing, at once aimed at characters and at the audience. Adding real punches results in more than simple irony; it adds another layer of possible deception. When we meet Mike, he is giving that lesson on distraction, and the distractions come fast and furious, caused by and causing both fortune and misfortune.
Mamet's goal is to offer the possibility that decency will not always prevail. Mike is a man of principle, but unfortunately for him, the filmmaker has put him in a story about luck and how you can't always account for it. A cop does the right thing and ends up harming everyone. Mike is honest and loses everything.
"Redbelt" is strongest when the traps are being set and sprung, when characters change from friends to foes, and when the wheel of fortune is kept in constant motion. It offers fine performances in a riveting story that's both intellectual and action-oriented. It also manages to take a popular subject, mixed martial arts -- which is to today what professional wrestling was to the 1980s and treat it without exploitation. If anything, the film counters exploitation with Mike, constantly tempted by a world outside his school that lacks his morals and ethics and is not above taking advantage of them.
The only problem is what to make of the concluding sequence, which would not be out of place in a Jean-Claude Van Damme flick. It emphasizes a question that dogs the circumstances Mamet is asking us to accept. Are we really supposed to believe that a man who practices chokeholds and leg locks is a principled, rational type we'd go to for advice or prefer as a dinner guest? Can we buy his desire to bring honor back to his world, or does it simply uphold a fantasy of the gentle giant or the expert warrior who uses his or her power only for good?
There may be room to claim that, like the characters on the screen, we're being toyed with. But with "Redbelt," it's more likely that Mamet, a man of good character and intention, may not be above all of Hollywood's temptations himself. (R) 99 min. S