Sometimes being enigmatic just isn’t as interesting as it should be.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet exercises his passion for the world of martial arts in this somewhat compelling drama.
Financially-strapped Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) runs a jujitsu studio in a seedy section of downtown Los Angeles. His prize pupil is a compassionate Los Angeles police officer (Max Martini) who earns off-duty money as a bouncer.
“Competition is weakening,” Terry insists in his self-defense instruction. It’s all about honor. “I train people to prevail.”
Which is why he doesn’t hesitate to come to the rescue of a hapless movie star, Chet Frank (Tim Allen), who gets caught in a bar brawl. For this Good Samaritan act, Terry receives a $20,000 gold watch as a gift and an invitation to dinner, where he becomes involved in an insidious showbiz scam involving his disgruntled Brazilian wife (Alice Braga, Sonia’s niece), Frank’s dress-designing wife (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s real-life wife), Frank’s unscrupulous agent (Joe Mantegna) and a corrupt promoter (magician Ricky Jay), who ‘fixes’ fights using three marbles to determine which contestant must compete in the ring with a handicap (blindfolded, one arm tied down, etc.).
As writer/director, Mamet keeps the fragmentary dialogue terse and the tension high, as seen through the camera of Oscar-winner Robert Elswit. With his muscled physique, soft-spoken manner and soulful eyes, Chiwetal Ejofor is sympathetic and convincing as the naïve samurai.
Problem is: the coincidental plot twists are implausible, as are some of the performances, particularly Emily Mortimer as an emotionally distraught lawyer who shows up on Terry’s doorstep one rainy night, igniting an unstoppable chain of events. And the title designates the ultimate fighting warrior. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Redbelt” is a sleazy, pulpy 6. Sometimes being enigmatic just isn’t as interesting as it should be.