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Non-Review Review: Redbelt

You have to admit that the premise, at least, is intriguing. Maybe the execution is less so, but the basic premise (a martial arts movie directed by maestro wordsmith David Mamet) deserves at least a little consideration. In fairness, the movie plays its cards pretty well. It’s populated with kind of deceit and self-deceit which we have come to expect from the characters which Mamet presents to us on a regular basis. It’s a grim and dark and seedy world, even underneath those bright lights. The problem is that the movie’s core appeal (articulated in its title, premise and marketing) of a martial arts movie simply cannot deliver in that environment. These two facets of the movie lock themselves in mortal combat like two prize fighters in the ring: Mamet’s cynicism and human drama facing off against the requisite showiness and razzle-dazzle of martial arts. At one point a character suggests that the money is in a draw (since a rematch is a huge moneyspinner), and maybe that’s why we get no winner here. We don’t even get an entertaining struggle.

The blows come as quick as the dialogue and are almost as sharp...

Mamet is an ace at dialogue. It’s hard to dispute. It’s what he does. The problem is that he isn’t so good with visuals. I’m not even talking about the brawls the movie requires (we’ll get to that). I’m talking about basic stuff, like conveying the movie’s point throw visuals as opposed to spoken words. Mamet seems focused on a playwrite’s view of the world, lingering on characters for dramatic effect. He doesn’t realise the appeal of cinema: you can directly control what the audience focuses on, much moreso than by putting actors on a stage and – if you are really good – you can do it without making the audience aware of your manipulation. Instead, Mamet seems to believe that showing us an actor emoting and playing a soundtrack over conveys the point. It does, but it feels awkward and hamfisted – we feel manipulated.

That said, there are more than a few moments when Mamet’s skills come to the fore. Heated interpersonal clashes which strike with a beat and the repetition that Mamet is famous for spark together to shock this unwieldly beast to life from time to time. They are few and far between, but they are moments to be savoured. The fact that they are delivered by an incredibly talented cast (both knowns and unknowns) only helps matters.

Perhaps the fact that the exploitation and deceptions and power plays all seem familiar work in the movie’s favour. We know that honourable instructor Mike Terry will be exploited from the moment that the men who smile like sharks lock eyes on him. We know that his money troubles will eventually – despite his noble nature – force him to make some choices his honour would otherwise prevent him from making. We know all these from nearly the moment that the characters are introduced to us. Even Mamet can’t make the story seem fresh, but he is able to at least give us some interesting dialogue and characters along the way. Still, the fact that the movie had me thinking of Dodgeball at several points is probably not a good thing for a serious drama.

The film runs into a bit of bother with its fight scenes. Are we meant to view these staged bouts with the same distain as the lead character? Or are we instead meant to view them through some sort of glorified filter? Am I meant to cheer at what is a stunningly impressive (yet completely impractical) badass walk near the film’s climax? Mamet seems to want to do it both ways, at oncegiving us a stylish yet brutal bar brawl, and then giving us a beyond absurdity climactic bout which looks like something from a John Woo film (complete with running on walls). The ending itself looks like it has been cookie-cuttered in order to seem like something we’d expect from a typical sports movie – it defies the harsh cold philosophy which Mamet espoused from the begining of the film.

Despite that, the film has its charms. A strong leading performance and the typical Mamet ear for dialogue help. Tim Allen is great in a supporting role here, and it’s always good to see Joe Mantenegra. There’s also the curiousity factor of seeing a martial arts film – complete with its requisite fantasy – blended with Mamet’s cold grounded cynicism. I’m not sure that’s enough to sustain an hour-and-a-half of screen time, and it’s certainly not Mamet’s strongest work (on the stage or on the screen).

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