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David Mamet's new film, “Redbelt,” is almost exactly like “The Karate Kid,” parts one through whatever, only less smart and with a less reliable narrative thrust. In sum, the film champions the noble Spartan over ignoble peddlers who attempt to make money off him.
The noble Spartan isn't an underdog because of any physical incapabilities a la Daniel Caruso, but because he makes the atavistic mistake of living by some vaguely orientalized code. Of course, society can't abide such figures, so it chews him up and spits him out.
But haha! The joke's on society. The Spartan in fact remains triumphant because he never strayed from his beloved code. The triumph is in himself. Cue triumph music.
“Redbelt” follows Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a jiu jitsu master who avoids competition because he feels it cheapens the fight. He lives and studies only to “prevail” in the fights that he's invariably lured into by some invariably noble purpose. Of course, not all his fights are the hand-to-hand kind. In fact, most of them are rather dull.
The precipitous rise in popularity of mixed martial arts competitions eventually finds a way to exploit the purity of Terry, but never fear: As he repeats, endlessly and insufferably, there is always an “escape.” You just have to have conviction in your own stiff-lipped fighting style.
The problem doesn't lie in the woefully simplistic high points of the narrative, but in the hardheaded manner in which Mamet winds his way from point A to point Zzzzzz. “Believability” relies so heavily on Mamet's belief system that the details are rendered inconsequential. You need only believe that the end justifies Mamet's means.
Mamet used to redeem his reactionary politics with tightly wound dialogue and breakneck plots that rarely departed the smothering atmosphere of a single room. He earned his name a long time ago with “American Buffalo,” a play that conjured all the intrigue of a thousand Le Carre thrillers out of the backhanded maneuvering of a couple of losers to possess a single priceless nickel.
He got most of the way there with a clipped, profane script that makes Harold Pinter look chatty.
The film version left a lot to be desired, but the screen adaptation of the play that won him the Pulitzer, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” lives on in the heart murmurs of prematurely balding gym-members everywhere for its superb cast, particularly Alec Baldwin, who gave the best performance of his career. (If gangsta rappers seem to have missed the point of “Scarface,” these middle management types are every bit as clueless about Mamet's “Death of a Salesman” rehash.)
His successful transition from stage to screen only made it about halfway. He's a decent enough screenwriter whose credits include Brian De Palma's hugely successful but largely forgotten hit “The Untouchables” (1987) and Danny DeVito's pretty decent “Hoffa” (1992). (For the record, “The Untouchables” is a personal favorite.)
However, his direction is always a wooden afterthought. With the possible exceptions of his political and Hollywood satires — “Wag the Dog” and “State and Maine” respectively — Mamet's tough guy bullshit never strays far enough from its roots on the stage to acquire the kineticism of cinema, let alone the basic requirements of narrative comprehensibility.
Maybe he's wearing one too many hats.