Thursday, September 18, 2008
"There is Always an Escape": Redbelt (2008)
David Mamet as a writer has always been hit or miss. When he’s on, you get great character pieces like Glengarry Glen Ross, one of my favorite scripts of the nineties, or tight action films like the underrated Spartan or The Edge (which, admittedly, I might be the only fan of). But when he’s off-- and he very often is-- you can get cheap sleight of hand like The Spanish Prisoner or nonsensical moral fables like the pathologically awful Edmond. 2008’s Redbelt, a modern-day samurai story which Mamet also directed, falls somewhere between these two plateaus. It’s an almost perfect exhibition of Mamet’s amazing strengths at constructing character and themes, but it’s also all too clear a portrait of his weak plotting.
The film stars the remarkably consistent Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry, a jujitsu instructor whose desire to lead a pure life is constantly in conflict with his need to make a living. His wife (Alice Braga in an uneven performance) pressures him to compete in mixed martial arts fights to supplement his income, but Terry is unyielding, asserting that “competition is weakening.” The film is a character study, and Mamet’s plot is built around the ways in which Terry’s deep sense of honor and morality is tested, whether by a shady fight promoter (Mamet regular Ricky Jay), a neurotic but well-meaning lawyer (Emily Mortimer) or an aging movie star (Tim Allen in one of his better film roles). But all of this is irrelevant, because we know where a movie that owes so much to the Samurai/Western genre is going-- at some point, this guy is gonna have to fight.
Mamet’s plotting is typically haphazard-- characters are introduced and then forgotten, people change from friend to foe on a dime, and no plot point ever seems to happen quite the way that the audience feels it should. Even after over twenty years’ experience in the film business, it seems as though Mamet still tries to maintain a playwright’s aesthetic in his film scripts, letting the characters say outright what is happening rather than letting it be shown by action or camerawork. So when Terry runs out of cash, Braga’s character says quite simply, “you have no cash,” and later, another character tells him that he is “addicted to poverty.” This kind of on the nose dialogue is actually less annoying here than it has been in Mamet’s past work, but the sheer amount of coincidence, chance, and downright absurd plot points he uses to advance his story isn’t, and the audience isn’t likely to buy a number of late twists. To his credit, Mamet knows where his story should be taking these characters, but he can’t seem to figure out how to move them from one scene to another, and while he eventually works his way to a good ending, he makes a mess of his plot trying to get there.
Still, as Mike Terry is wont to tell his students, "there is always an escape," and in the same way that Mamet’s compact and talky theatrical style hurts his plotting, it’s a revelation for his characters. Mike Terry is the kind of smart, sympathetic, classically constructed hero that we get all too little of in the movies, and the fact that Mamet can drop an honorable warrior with a personal moral code into modern day L.A. and still have it feel believable is a testament to his writing. He effectively layers the film around his main character. Every plot point-- no matter how amateurishly it may be reached-- is the result of a motive or action that seems perfectly natural and at home in Terry’s character. The mistakes he makes and the triumphs he has are all the result of something unique to him. That’s enough of a rarity that it just might win you over to the film’s side, and it shows where a writer like Mamet can excel when he wants to.
Of course, Mamet can’t be given all the credit here for making Mike Terry such a fine character-- a great deal of that is thanks to a superb performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, who once again proves that he is one of the very best actors around. In a relatively brief career, he’s managed to cover a lot of ground, from playing a drag queen (Kinky Boots) to a New York City detective (Inside Man) to a futuristic, sword-wielding government operative (Serenity). He’s playing an archetype here--the skilled fighter who considers violence an affront to the purity of the code of the warrior--and he pulls it off rather impressively. He has a gift for being able to evoke the sympathy of the audience whenever he wants it, and even when he’s playing a character that’s more virtuous than most of us could ever hope to be, he manages to make him feel real and flawed. Ejiofor has proven himself adept at carrying the moral weight in his films-- just watch his turn as an immigrant doctor in Dirty Pretty Things-- and it’s probably only a matter of time before he gets cast as the lead of a sweeping epic about a great historical hero. Redbelt is just more proof that he is up to the task. His Mike Terry is the best kind of film hero-- the kind of person that you hope exists somewhere out there in the real world.