I was apprehensive about Redbelt–mostly due to the awkward trailers–but it was totally unfounded. The film’s story, Mamet’s narrative, resists being abbreviated or advertised. It’s all very gradual, very quiet, which each scene building on the one previous. It’s probably Mamet’s finest film as a director, his widescreen composition is wonderful–there’s this one shot where Emily Mortimer’s head, in profile, sits in the center of the screen while she talks and it’s exceptional. Also because he forces himself to shut up. Instead of letting characters talk, he brings up Stephen Endelman’s essential score and lets the body language do the work. It’s a David Mamet film where silence is key.
Instead of being a thoughtful, intellectual approach to the karate movie (that long moth-balled genre), Mamet tells a story where the cost of the philosophy–paid so much lip-service in the genre–often outweighs its rewards. Actually, for much of Redbelt, it’s hard to see where there’s any reward, but Mamet manages to show it and does it in an amazing, big, booming Hollywood way and turns in it in perfectly. Redbelt, at times, reminded me of Ghost Dog, but told straight.
Mamet does get to do the rousing fight scene here and it might be, given the importance in the story and for the protagonist, the best fight scene ever in a film. It’s not the most visually dynamic, but the gravity of it… the following will sound a little glib, but Mamet also might have made the best superhero movie ever here too.
The cast hurts nothing. Obviously, Chiwetel Ejiofor turns in an outstanding, amazing performance, but he always seems to turn in those performances so it’s no surprise. There’s a great scene, Mortimer’s first class at the jujitsu academy, where Ejiofor just sits there for a moment. It’s a quiet scene, played from Mortimer’s confused perspective, but Ejiofor’s expression alone tells the viewer the answer to her question, before she even asks it. Mortimer’s good too, with Mamet giving her three great big scenes. Alice Braga is also good, even though Mamet intentionally doesn’t give her big scenes. The Mamet Repertory Actors–Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna and Rebecca Pidgeon–are all good in smaller roles. Tim Allen’s turn as a burning-out Hollywood star is excellent, but it’s some of the unknowns who turn in the most affecting supporting performances. Max Martini has a vocal role and he’s great, but Jose Pablo Cantillo–in a nearly silent role–is almost as good.
Mamet, at his best, can make anything excellent (I always forget he’s a far from prolific director), can turn a genre film into an essential. Redbelt is Mamet at his best.
Written and directed by David Mamet; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Stephen Endelman; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Chrisann Verges; released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mike Terry), Emily Mortimer (Laura Black), Alice Braga (Sondra Terry), Tim Allen (Chet Frank), Jose Pablo Cantillo (Snowflake), Rodrigo Santoro (Bruno Silva), Ricky Jay (Marty Brown), Joe Mantegna (Jerry Weiss), Rebecca Pidgeon (Zena Frank), David Paymer (Richard), Max Martini (Joe Collins) and John Machado (Augusto Silva).