The only good thing that can be said about the ridiculous martial arts morality play Redbelt is that writer-director David Mamet avoids self-parody. An exercise in contrivances, con games and hokey honor that looks and sounds like a late-night basic-cable movie, the film never persuades us that anything of actual importance is going on. But Mamet somehow generates enough suspense to keep us from laughing out loud as his ludicrous story reaches its climax. One presumes he had loftier goals.
Mamet has simultaneously embodied American intellectualism and anti-intellectualism for some three decades, dealing from both decks as it suited him. His unmistakable intelligence, writing ability and knowledge of the theatre convinced critics and audiences that there was more to his plays than savage profanity and low-rent misogyny. Meanwhile, his cigar-smoking, poker-playing persona gave him credibility with the Esquire-GQ-Playboy readers who don't frequent the theater but turn out for his movies.
In other words, Mamet is both a highbrow artist who sees and translates the world for us lesser mortals and a man's man deserving of great riches and pop-culture popularity. But that's not enough for The Great Writer. Time after time, especially in his movies, he's invented fantasy replications of himself. These characters -- always men, it goes without saying -- are sweaty macho beasts whose métier is action but who are also eminently capable of delivering a Simenon-style soliloquy on the frailty of human resolve in the face of financial or fleshy temptation.
Which brings us to Redbelt hero Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ojiofor), a tightly controlled jiu-jitsu instructor who believes that discipline and mental strength are more important than footwork and moves. Like a retired gunfighter in an old Western who is compelled to enter a fray when a bully beats on some poor innocent, Terry intercedes in a bar brawl, saving the neck of a middle-aged white guy.
This poor innocent, however, is actually action-movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen), a multimillionaire with a drinking problem and an oily manager (Mamet regular Joe Mantegna). Chet befriends Terry, his wife (Rebecca Pidgeon) bonds with Terry's wife (Alice Braga), and it looks like fate has smiled at just the right time in that very special L.A. way. But this tangled con-job plot has a long way to go before it climaxes with Terry asserting his manhood, and choosing morality over opportunism.
One of the mysteries of Redbelt is why Mamet continues to populate his films with despicable Hollywood types who have been so thoroughly exposed in countless movies about movies. I'm starting to think that Mamet doesn't just despise the industry sharks, but American movies as well. It would not be unlike Mamet to think that he's smarter and more talented than everybody else, and that his movies are several cuts above the usual fodder churned out by Hollywood. But based on his most recent output (Spartan, Heist and State and Main), that's no longer a claim he can make with a straight face.
I submit that, like so many gifted writers before him, Mamet is slumming in Hollywood, taking the fat checks and loathing himself behind close doors. We don't catch any wind of it, however, because he's a devout capitalist (an important credential for anti-intellectuals) and lacks the self-destructive streak of a Fitzgerald or a Faulkner (another characteristic that endears him to Esquire readers).
Such conjecture is a bit beside the point, I know. What really matters is how well Mamet's brand of bone-dry philosophizing (obscured by the muscular, masculine enclaves where he sets his ho-hum fables) addresses our current moral entropy. Redbelt proves pretty definitively that Mamet is more interested in concocting elaborate shell-and-marble games than tackling tough questions.
Redbelt opens Friday, May 9, 2008.