Can a film fail to relate huge swathes of plot and still succeed? David Mamet’s incoherent but tersely thrilling Redbelt certainly seems to operate that way. Jiu-Jitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives by a strict Samurai code of ethics, often to the chagrin of his wife Sondra (Alice Braga), who runs a fabrics business that helps to fund Mike’s struggling gym. While instructing cop buddy Joe (The Unit’s Max Martini), a distraught, pill-popping lawyer (a note-perfect Emily Mortimer) shoots out the gym’s front window. This kickstarts a series of events too labyrinthine to describe here, involving the aforementioned players, an aging action star (Tim Allen), mixed-martial-arts fight promoters (Joe Mantegna and Ricky Jay), and Sondra’s extended family of shady Argentineans.
While Mamet is principally known for his Nobel-winning Glengarry Glen Ross, his recent work on films like Val Kilmer vehicle Spartan and television’s The Unit has been marked by a reliance on tough-guy clichés and lackluster attempts to substitute his trademark rat-a-tat dialogue style with thick plotting. Redbelt sees him not necessarily rectifying these issues, but at least making something deeply entertaining out of his recent fixations. It helps that he’s enlisted a few reliable scene-chewers, especially Jay and Mantegna, as well as a restrained, bitter Allen, far removed from his cuddly Disney persona. The dialogue itself is largely unmemorable, but it’s delivered with such infectious gusto (aided by Barbara Tulliver’s nimble editing) that even the film’s most nonsensical plot contortions seem, if not natural, then at least necessary. Much of the film lies squarely on Ejiofor’s shoulders, however, and he performs on a tightrope for much of its duration, having to negotiate his character’s stubborn insistence on archaic wisdom with his need for basic human pride – all while working within the script’s absurdly amorphous machinations. Even as the film succumbs to its tiresome Samurai mysticism in the worst way possible in its final moments, Ejiofor’s troubled face grounds the film in a certain reality, if not our own.