Monday, May 05, 2008


As a filmmaker, David Mamet's having kind of a rough decade. 2000's State and Main was a diverting enough Hollywood satire, I suppose, though it's pretty toothless. (How far can you really go with jokes about neurotic leading ladies and nebbishy screenwriters? It's been done to death). Heist in 2001 has a lot of nice little moments, and I particularly enjoy the script's use of "lame" as a noun ("what are you, some kind of lame?") but it has about eight twists too many and doesn't add up to much. 2004's Spartan is a complete debacle that totally falls apart in the second half.

And now we have Redbelt, without a doubt the weakest film Mamet has yet produced and the sort of thing that just makes me question his judgment. It's not like Redbelt was some ambitious misfire. It's maybe one-third of a movie, stretched out to feature length by unfolding its overly-complex but ultimately uninteresting plot at a snail's pace. It's genuinely hard for me to believe that this script was written by one of America's most famous and beloved dramatic writers. It's lacking on a basic, conceptual level.

It seems to me that Mamet simply wanted to make a martial arts film, but felt the unnecessary urge to "Mamet-ize" the story, adding in a bunch of extraneous "twists" and misdirection to sort of make the genre his own. I sense the narrative would have worked better if Mamet had stuck to the more standard kung fu movie structure, but it's still not really a story that's worth telling on its own merits.

The only thing that really kept me going through the slog that is Redbelt was the performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Jiu-Jitsu instructor Mike Terry. Ejiofor's probably one of the most compelling actors in film today, and there are many wordless close-ups of his face in the film that are far more interesting than all the mechanics of the film's grandiose set-up. (A few Mamet regulars pop up - Joe Mantegna, Ed O'Neil, his wife Rebecca Pidgeon - but only Ricky Jay makes any kind of impact, in his usual small and extremely deadpan role. He gets every single one of the film's best lines.)

Terry's studio, Southside Jiu-Jitsu, has hit hard times. So when he comes to the aid of a movie star (Tim Allen) in a bar fight, and the star then asks him to come aboard his film project as a fight coordinator and adviser, the offer's too good to pass up. Around this same time, there's a strange incident in Terry's dojo, where a disoriented woman (Emily Mortimer) wanders in off the street and accidentally shoots at an off-duty cop (Max Martini).

These two incidents don't seem connected at first, but that would be okay as long as they seemed important. Unfortunately, neither story has any kind of intensity or stakes. Terry might lose his dojo, but it's hard to feel emotionally invested in this place. It's usually empty, and we don't really get much of a feel for what it's like in there. And the cop might get in trouble for not reporting the incident to his superiors, but he's entirely bland and barely even in the film.

For about the film's first hour, we're just kind of wandering around in Terry's world, adrift. Mamet has written a lot of speeches and information about jiu-jitsu and the theories behind it, and I guess the notion of a completely defensive martial arts strategy, about using your opponents attacks against her, is interesting in some ways. But it's not a replacement for actual storytelling, and it really doesn't tie in to the things Terry is going through in the movie until the very end.

The whole thing ends up, as these movies often do, with Terry agreeing to fight as an undercard to a big mixed martial-arts fight, featuring his own brother-in-law. It's the sort of sequence that, in a normal kung fu film, would provide a big, crowd-pleasing conclusion in which the hero wins the day. Mamet's movie doesn't quite get there for a variety of reasons:

(1) He's clueless as to how to shoot the fighting.

These fight scenes are just ugly, chopped up and blurred and impossible to follow. There was not a single move or moment - a punch landed or a skilled reversal - with any visceral impact whatsoever. It's just lines on a screen.

(2) He hasn't done a good enough job of establishing who his fighters are and what's at stake.

The main antagonist of the whole movie is introduced with about 10 minutes of screen time remaining. I don't care who you are, that's just bad. First-time screenwriters know better than that.

Also, because of the nature of this last fight, the win or loss itself will be meaningless. There is nothing to be won. I'm not even sure why these two need to be fighting.

(3) The actual blocking and dynamics of the sequence don't make any sense.

Without giving too much away, the final fight in this movie would just be impossible. It wouldn't happen that way, at all, and if it did, no one would react as they do. It would be like Rocky ending with Apollo Creed challenging the Italian Stallion to a hot air balloon race around the world. They just wouldn't do's wrong...

In fact, much of the premise of Redbelt just feels dubious to me. Like, it just wouldn't happen. The strange rules for the competition. The incident with the gun in the dojo. The whole Tim Allen barfight...It's just feels wrong.

Sometimes, with my own scripts, I'll look back on something I wrote and realize that I had some idea in my head of what I wanted to do, and I was just forcing it into the script, even when it didn't exactly fit. That's the first sign I need to throw that stuff away and start again. Redbelt feels like Mamet forcing these ideas to work, even though they clearly don't. He should have just put it aside and done something else, or started over.


Brandon said...

A friend of mine worked with Mamet at the Geffen Playhouse, and his opinion went along the lines that he still stands as a great writer, but very poor director. And perhaps that's what came of this movie: a script that he was invested to direct. My friend mostly talked about the papers Mamet would write about the art of directing; describing very simple, basic directing fundamentals and then writing for pages about how he conceived the notions and how they were revolutionary to theatre. He would also slam previous generations' most famous and well-respected directors for being wrong.

So in all, perhaps he had a heyday a decade ago that went to his head; perhaps he strives for a different voice without having full confidence in what he's really trying to say; or perhaps kung-fu just ain't it for him.

JM said...

yeah if you read his book on directing film, it's just so...aggravating. i mean, granted, you read a book written by a specific person you expect to be from their viewpoint and how they would do things but...he just...has no real clue how to do things right. his idea of directing just seems so and mamet has also just lost it completely. though, to be honest, i'm not really sure he ever really had it that much to begin with.

Anonymous said...

This is a simple opinion written by a simpleton - this is not a movie about kung-fu or mixed-martial arts.

It's a story of a man with a code and how he compromises himself only to redeem himself at the same time, in the same action.

He escapes a position he put himself in simply by being himself.

The setting is irrelevant.

Mamet movies are not Ron Bass movies. He has a unique style that required, demands, a unique perspective.

This is not David Lynch, this is not Shamalamadingdong, this is not Quiet Time - this is not existential pondering, fantastic coincidence or hip bloodsport.

It's reality, or as close as you are going to get and keep it dramatic, because it's one guy's thing. One man's approach to a theme.

You want to bitch and whine - make your own thing. Otherwise, go see Iron Man.

Lons said...

I spent five years training with a great jiu-jitsu master, Renato Magno, and associating with his colleagues and cousins, the Machados and the Gracies. They, in their demeanor, their generosity, and their understanding of the world, offered to me, and their other students, a vision of the possibility of correct, moral behavior in all circumstances. This understanding was and is, in perfection, a modern stoicism. As such, it seemed the perfect encapsulation of the hero, and the world of martial arts, the perfect arena for its exploration." - David Mamet

Yeah, you're right...totally irrelevant.

Lons said...

Okay, I can't just leave it at that. This comment is thoroughly ridiculous. You have no clue what you're talking about.

Movies aren't about just one thing. You can't encapsulate a 90 minute experience into one sentence, you moron. Yes, you describe correctly a theme in the film "Redbelt." Congrats.

I discuss various aspects of the film, not necessarily spelling out the major themes and motifs for the reader, figuring they can deduce that for themselves if they care enough to watch the film. I'm merely giving my impressions and opinions, not doing a homework assignment.

Also, this sentence? "It's reality, or as close as you are going to get and keep it dramatic, because it's one guy's thing." NONSENSICAL! Who's the simpleton?