Redbelt & r & & r & by MARYANN JOHANSON & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & 've had my ups and downs with David Mamet as a filmmaker: If I loved his last film, it seems I must hate the next one. I loved State and Main, his satire on Hollywood; and then I hated Heist, which sounds like what it is. I loved Spartan, his challenging action movie, so now I must hate Redbelt. And I do.
I don't really hate it. I was onboard with Redbelt for a long while, trusting that all the loose threads would come together in a satisfying way. I wanted it all to work. Because Mamet is that rarity: a filmmaker who takes chances, who tells stories no one else is telling or who at least tells familiar stories in a way that no one else would, who pushes the boundaries of cinema. That's a good thing -- no, a great thing. But experiments sometimes fail, as this one does. And yet it's kind of like watching the guy who spins plates: Even when the plates come crashing down, there's a kind of thrill in having seen him try.
You always know it's Mamet right away, with his forced, unnatural dialogue that doesn't sound like how anyone really talks and yet somehow forces good actors to be great. And so there's a kind of thrill, too, in watching the fantastic Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry, owner and instructor at a little Los Angeles martial arts gym, as his life begins to fall apart in slow motion around him. The business is going down the tubes -- the Mamet-y argument Mike has with his wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), over the gym's finances is a minor classic for the writer. Then a strange confluence of events introduces him to aging action star Chet Frank (Tim Allen), who needs a combat consultant on his new flick. Mike had seemed pretty down-to-earth, but he lets himself get seduced by the siren call of Hollywood. He takes Sondra along for the ride, even as she befriends Chet's wife, Zena (Rebecca Pidgeon).
The film is full, at this point, of an itchy sense of looming disaster: It's clear to us, if not to Mike and Sondra, that their new pals are bad news. Weaving in a veritable parade of mysterious characters -- a troubled lawyer (Emily Mortimer), a cop with money problems (Max Martini), a crooked promoter of mixed martial arts fights (Ricky Jay), Chet's nasty manager (Joe Mantegna), and more -- Mamet crafts a tale of corruption and nastiness as endemic to the twisted human spirit. Mike battles the corruption within himself as he gets drawn into a splashy martial-arts competition against his own better judgment.
That's how I felt, too, as Redbelt drew itself out without ever gelling. The film is always teetering on the edge of preposterousness, and then it finally tumbles over. I think the final straw may have been when a moment that had felt, early on, like a jammed-in throwaway comes around to be crucial: If X is so vital to the story, it shouldn't have been hastily stapled onto an unconnected scene. No amount of adventurous experimenting on Mamet's part can make up for how forcibly constructed Redbelt feels. (Rated R)