No writer knows how a con game ticks better than David Mamet. He's proved it repeatedly as a playwright (Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo) and a filmmaker (House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner). So you sense a sting in Redbelt when Mamet zooms in on ethics in the person of Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Gulf War veteran who runs a jujitsu studio in L.A. according to strict samurai code. To Mike, there's shame in competition, which puts him up against the American way as he is prodded to go for the jackpot on the mixed-martial-arts circuit. Though MMA figures in Redbelt, Mamet, who studied jujitsu for five years, is more interested in the philosophy that understanding will defeat strength. With uncanny skill, Mamet directs the movie like a moral combat sport in which a variety of techniques are used to crush Mike's spirit. His wife (Alice Braga) pleads with him to get them out of debt. A crooked fight promoter (Ricky Jay) gives him the means. A cop student (Max Martini) and lawyer (Emily Mortimer) unwittingly combine to tighten the vise. An action-movie (Tim Allen, superb at lacing charm with venom) and his producer (Joe Mantegna) offer to pay Mike for ideas they intend to steal. And finally, in a battle fought with a Brazilian champion (John Machado) outside the ring, Mike finds his way back to honor. At the center of this quiet storm of a movie, beautifully shot by There Will Be Blood Oscar winner Robert Elswit, Ejiofor confirms his status as one of the best actors anywhere. Born in London to Nigerian parents, Ejiofor can do film drama (Dirty Pretty Things) and comedy (Kinky Boots) and win raves onstage (as Othello). The resonant stillness he brings to Redbelt pulls you in. Even allowing for a few slips in pacing and judgment, Mamet is on his game, and that is a sight to see. No con.
From The Archives Issue 253: December 1, 1977