Redbelt review

David Mamet discovers the foot fist way

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Is there another major playwright who's slipped so easily between Broadway and B-movies? David Mamet is as hard-headed and unsentimental as one of his luckless protagonists and he doesn't look away from the seedier side of the street – in fact, you get the impression he prefers it. And if by chance, traffic crosses over from the other side, well, this is where the nitty-gritty of American life gets interesting.

Redbelt is a martial-arts movie, as tight and compacted as any, though you'll scour the DVD shelves for a long time to find another one with such a rhythmic appreciation for language. Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) owns and operates a small ju-jitsu studio in Los Angeles. Mike doesn't just teach self-defence, he practises it as a philosophy – the code of the warrior. Being a purist, that involves avoiding fights. Which consequently makes paying the bills a bit of a struggle…

Two incidents threaten to pull Mike in opposite directions. In the first, a freak accident involving neurotic lawyer Laura (Emily Mortimer) and his student, cop Joe (Max Martini), threatens his business. In the second, he saves movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) from a nasty beating in a bar fight. Chet's gratitude opens up a new world of possibilities.

Except, this being a Mamet movie, nothing is as simple as it seems. Actually, that's a major understatement and a half.If there is a problem with Redbelt, it's that Mamet overcomplicates, putting Mike in a headlock, then swinging him flat on his back. The big fight climax, when it comes, doesn't pack the satisfying cathartic punch that such tribulations demand.

On the other hand, Ejiofor is superbly centred and authoritative, completely in command of Mamet's mantra-like dialogue ("Improve the position"; "There's always an escape"). Critics' punching bag Tim Allen also proves his mettle as the cosseted movie star, while Mamet regulars Joe Mantegna and Ricky Jay make themselves at home in this world of bars, gyms and lawyers' offices.

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