Peel away the pseudo-complex layers of David Mamet’s Brazilian Jujitsu film Redbelt and you’ll find the vitality of honor standing righteously alone. A similar warrior code defines Mamet’s previous film Spartan, but the professional world of Redbelt isn’t nearly as cutthroat as that masterpiece’s, at least in terms of mortal combat. The latest Mamet is more of a slow burn, a simmering deconstruction of trust within a sacred martial art that could represent a compromise of ethics on multiple fronts. Surprisingly, Mamet has fashioned an incomplete and simple glance at his own cinematic jockeying, never tying up the many loose ends his manipulating characters hang themselves with.
Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a respected Jujitsu teacher who has never entered the ring of professional competition, is Mamet’s consummate stoic. Mike owns a disciplined but economically failing self-defense studio with his wife Alice (Alice Braga). Their relationship feels temporary from the opening scene, as if their needs and expectations had somehow chosen to ignore each other before marrying. This distant coupling filters down to the rest of the film’s many open-ended characters. Faced with desperate monetary problems, Mike begins to dissolve his sense of tradition little by little, getting lured in by a Hollywood action star (Tim Allen), his producer (Joe Mantenga), and a dirty fight promoter (Ricky Jay).
With Spartan and now Redbelt, Mamet’s legendary magic tricks of plot and dialogue have taken a back seat to a more restrained and menacing outlook on human interactions. Silence comes to represent strength, while those who talk the most pose the greatest threat. But Redbelt never delivers the same gut-punch as Spartan, not thematically or politically. This might have to do with the narrative scope of each film. Where Spartan addresses the devastating international reach of American political greed and corruption, Redbelt takes aim at the bastardizing of sport through mass media and how the so called “Masters” get left in the dust after being drained dry by the latest televised fight or cable interview. Still, Mamet’s growing visual maturity has only heightened the sanctity of his rhythmic words, whether it’s those stated outright in a fog of uncertainty or the ones displayed silently through brutal physical action. Redbelt is a fine example of this exciting dynamic.