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4 reviews, 3 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Arena Of Games"
5 stars

David Mamet has been praised so often for his skills as a writer, both as a playwright and as a screenwriter (regarding the latter, I would be perfectly willing to include him in the pantheon of all-time greats simply for his contributions to “The Verdict,” “The Untouchables,” “Wag the Dog” and the Alec Baldwin scene from the screen version of “Glengarry Glen Ross”), that his equally strong gifts as a film director are often overlooked entirely. Since making his debut behind the camera with the masterful 1987 con-man drama “House of Games,” he has given us a steady stream of films that have seen him constantly stretching himself as a storyteller--he has given us the Capraesque comedy “Things Change,” the intense police procedural “Homicide,” the big-screen adaptation of his own play “Oleanna,” the cinematic puzzle “The Spanish Prisoner,” the low-key drawing-room drama “The Winslow Boy,” the hilariously rude Hollywood satire “State & Main,” the gripping crime film “Heist” and the brilliant intellectual action film “Spartan” (arguably the best of the bunch)--and with the sole exception of “Oleanna” (which was hampered by the fact that he was adapting one of his weakest plays), each one of those titles can stand proudly among the finest cinematic achievements of their respective years. And yet, he continues to be underestimated as a director (if he is estimated at all) by people who focus only on his writing skills without realizing that he has developed into one of the most consistently interesting American directors working today.

On the surface, his latest film, “Redbelt,” may seem like has finally given up on the notion of making the kind of artistically inclined films that he has leaned towards as a filmmaker in order to make the kind of empty-headed potboiler that cleans up at the box-office--how else to explain his decision to write and direct a film about the world of mixed martial arts in which one of the key roles is played by none other than Tim Allen? Even for a guy whose IMDB page currently lists him as being in pre-production on something entitled “Joan of Bark: The Dog That Saved France,” it seems bizarre that he would voluntarily work on a project that sounds on the surface like a new version of the recent MMA dud “Never Back Down” skewed for a slightly more literate market. And yet, while the conflict between preserving one’s innermost convictions and the pressure to cast off those convictions for money and fame is at the heart of “Redbelt,” the film is anything but the sellout move that some might be anticipating.

Because one of the pleasures of a David Mamet screenplay is in watching the unexpected ways in which his narratives unfold, I will try not to reveal too much of what transpires. Suffice it to say, Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Mike Terry, the owner and chief instructor of a mixed martial arts academy who is so devoted to the purity of his life’s passion that he refuses to enter himself in any tournaments in the belief that competitions are inherently dishonest. Alas, such selfless devotion to one’s craft is rarely financially remunerative and his school is one the financial ropes and barely kept afloat by loans made by Mike’s wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), from the hardly-robust accounts of her own struggling dress design company. One night, there is an accident at his studio that results in the destruction of an expensive front window and while Mike fudges the account of what really happened in order to protect two people who would get into serious trouble if the truth were to get out--a longtime friend, pupil/off-duty cop Joe (Max Martini) and a complete stranger, high-strung lawyer Laura Black (Emily Mortimer)--it means that his insurance will not cover the damages and the cost of repairing it will leave him with no money to pay the rent. Sondra insists that Mike swallow his pride and ask her brother, Bruno (Rodrigo Santoro), for a loan. Mike does show up at Bruno’s club but can’t bring himself to ask for the money and while sitting at a bar, he saves a drunk patron from a serious beating by stepping in and laying down the other guy so quickly and with so little evident effort that it is almost as if it never happened. (“I never threw a punch. I’m a stone-cold victim.”)

Among the people astounded by Mike effortless prowess is the guy he saved, who turns out to be none other than movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen), who shows his gratitude by sending Mike an expensive watch, inviting him and his wife to dinner at his mansion, where Sondra’s dress designs impress Chet’s businesswoman wife (Rebecca Pidgeon) enough to inspire a potential partnership between the two, and offers Mike a job as a technical advisor on his latest project. It all seems to good to be true and that turns out to be exactly the case--a seemingly innocuous and selfless gesture of goodwill on Mike’s part kicks off a series of unforeseen events that leave him and Sondra even deeper in the hole than they were before. At this point, Bruno’s sleazy fight promoter partner (the invaluable Ricky Jay) comes in with a proposal--Mike should fight in the undercard match of an upcoming mixed martial arts title bout that has a few surprises to offer the pay-per-view audience, if not Mike himself. With no other option, Mike agrees to compete but when he inadvertently discovers a couple of additional secrets to the contest, it reignites his idealism in interesting ways.

On the surface, “Redbelt” may sound like just another film in which a noble and honest fighter goes up against a corrupt machine in a battle of wills culminating in a big match that somehow winds up settling things once and for all. However, Mamet takes this fairly familiar conceit and brings so much juice to the proceedings that he actually makes it once again seem fresh and vital. Unlike the primitive plotting that one might expect from a film of this type, Mamet has once again crafted a nifty narrative in which he manages to constantly pull the rug out from under us in terms of expectations without ever cheating by throwing in truly implausible plot developments in a desperate effort to goose viewer attention--even I was surprised by a few of the twists and turns that he had in store. Likewise, his flair for dialogue is a thing to behold--his characters speak in few words but when they do open their mouths, they make it count with the kind of pugnacious poetry that manages to be perfectly phrased without coming across as too obviously ’written.” That said, Mamet is not merely resting on his laurels this time around--he is also taking huge risks by trying new things to challenge himself and those risks pay off as well. Early in the film, Mike demonstrates a training method in which a fighter willing handicaps himself by tying an arm to his side before fighting--the idea is that the handicap only exists if you think of it as a handicap. Towards the end, Mamet does the exact same thing to himself by taking his greatest asset as a writer out of the equation by telling a story in which the last fifteen minutes or so are told entirely through visual means without a single line of dialogue being spoken by anyone. It may sound like a self-conscious stunt but, like the narrative concept that Mamet set out for himself in “Spartan” (the notion of writing a gritty action drama that eschewed practically all of the expository dialogue that one might normally hear in such a film in order to bring viewers up to speed), he does it in such a subtle manner and in the service of such a naturally gripping story that I didn’t even notice the absence of dialogue from the final sequence until it was practically over.

Of course, when Mamet does have things for his characters to say, he has once again been blessed with a cast that knows how to deliver his idiosyncratic dialogue in such a way so that it sounds completely natural. The cast is peppered with many Mamet regulars--Joe Mantegna as Chet’s right-hand man, David Paymer as a bookie and the aforementioned Ricky Jay--and while it is always a pleasure to see them delivering his dialogue (Ricky Jay pretty much steals the entire show as the fight promoter who is earnestly trying to boost the sagging pay-per-view sales for an upcoming fight by pushing for a “racial grudge match”), it is hardly a surprise to see them do it so well. The real surprise comes from how well the newcomers to the Mamet stable of players adapt to the challenges of working with his material. Those who have seen Chiwetel Ejiofor in previous films like “Dirty Pretty Things,” “Children of Men” and “Talk to Me” know that he is one of the best actors working in film these days but even they may impressed by what he does here--he takes to both the dialogue and the physical challenges of the role with such effortless commitment that you would think that he had been doing the collected works of Mamet and mixed martial arts for years. (Watching him suddenly slip into action mode, I was reminded of that part in “The Bourne Identity” when Matt Damon’s fighting skills came back to him so suddenly that even he seemed amazed by what he could do.) And as strange as it may sound, Tim Allen is also excellent in his smaller role as the Hollywood big shot who changes Mike’s life in ways both good and bad--instead of playing to the rafters as he has done in most of his other big-screen work, he dials things down considerably and comes up with a spot-on portrayal of clueless celebrity without ever pushing it into overblown caricature. Based on his work here, I can actually see Allen using this performance as a springboard to a career involving films a little more illustrious than the likes of “Wild Hogs” if enough people in Hollywood get a chance to see it and realize what he can do when he isn’t relying on his usual schtick.

“Redbelt” is a smart and stirring drama in which the intellectual conflicts turn out to be almost as exciting as the more visceral physical ones. Unfortunately, the combination of the two may pay off with fascinating artistic dividends, I have a sinking feeling that it will be a different story from a financial perspective--even it weren’t coming out against the twin behemoths of “Speed Racer” and the second week of “Iron Man,” my guess is that the mixed martial arts angle may well put off viewers who might ordinarily be in the mood for a David Mamet film while fans of the increasingly popular sport may also stay away on the assumption that it is just another piece of exploitative craft along the lines of the aforementioned “Never Back Down.” Neither of those assumptions turns out to be true--the film is as smart and interesting as Mamet’s other screen efforts and he treats the sport with obvious respect while still maintaining a proper level of excitement during the fight scenes. “It’s all about authenticity,” a character remarks at one point and while “Redbelt” may illustrate the personal and professional perils of maintaining that authenticity, it is obvious in virtually every frame of this film that David Mamet does not have that problem.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17119&reviewer=389
originally posted: 05/08/08 23:57:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival For more in the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/08/08 damalc well acted but a rambling mess for a mamet film 3 stars
9/30/08 Lee Captivating, meaningful, Victorious 5 stars
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  02-May-2008 (R)
  DVD: 26-Aug-2008


  DVD: 26-Aug-2008

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