What I like about David Mamet's movies is how lean and propulsive his characters are—clipped and sure of themselves. Not particularly cinematic, clearly existing on the page through dialog and the determination of action through written word, it is nevertheless refreshing to see a film like Mamet's great Spartan (2004) and his less impressive Redbelt and hear someone speak. Because from the look of the actor and the shine of the words, we can know all there is to know about the character. It may cut down any sense of nuance or ambiguity—and a film as parable-like as Redbelt certainly contains only the minimal requirement of ambiguity—but it is a kind of return to the welcome sense of recognition one has when watching an old Hollywood film and seeing one of a myriad of unnameable but imminently type-able character actors. When someone appears, we know who they are, what they are like, and what they are up to.
With a Mamet film, we can be propelled forward on the confident completeness with which the writer/director thinks he has crafted his characters. Whether or not they are whole, or even meaningful, they nevertheless exist and move like defined masses, whose only purpose is to exhibit their own definition, secureness, and resiliency by coming into volatile contact with other such masses. Lean little planets in orbit, they are dying for a galactic collision that will never come in a cinema so pre-determined. But at least in the best of Mamet there is a sense of melancholy recognition, the awareness that since everything has been set up from the beginning—in both senses, Mamet being a dialog writer above all else, and that so many of his films feature elaborate confidence games—a character should accept the sad fate of never exploding gloriously, never being truly tested for this philosophical wholeness Mamet's killer dialog encases everyone in. The over-determination eliminates the spectacular but it does provide a fast ride of confidence, stories and characters skating forward with believable momentum and weight on rails to the end of their films.
If Mamet could lay more fate on the shoulders of his films after the old-guard ethics of Heist (2001) and the warrior-code ethos of Spartan, he does so in Redbelt, taking fate to a level of corny moral lessons so explicit that the film almost seems a children's tale. An anachronism of country, time, and economics, it is about the code of the warrior, a bushido-like way of living for jujitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor). If Jarmusch already knew the romance and nostalgia involved with making a contemporary movie on bushido, in his Ghost Dog using unexpected tonal and plot juxtapositions, Mamet takes the unreality of such things as ethics, dedication, and discipline in the world, and overloads it until we simply can't believe it any more. The 1970s throwback quality of Heist tempered its righteousness, just as Spartan's utilitarian black-ops milieu gave proper setting for the exhibition of upright behavior, but Redbelt's eventual turnout has no such explanation. Ideals triumph in a world where such a thing is no longer possible
Despite the subject of jujitsu, it is not people Terry combats but rather financial difficulties, and he has to push hard against giving into the fraudulent show that his both his sport and most of society has turned into, a show pathologically obsessed with making money. Terry is just as out of place in this world with his warrior ethics of honor, respect, and conservative determination as Forrest Whitaker's walking anomaly in Ghost Dog—except Jarmusch willingly embraced a wacky tone of solemnity and satire, and Mamet plays his morality tale straight. The fighting is shortchanged visually, and the human relationships, such as that between Terry and his wife (Caroline de Souza Correa) and an unhinged pupil (Emily Mortimer), are terse and functional only so as to get Terry to the illustrative point of proving the worthiness of his life philosophy in this most unworthy of worlds.
Gone, for the most part, is Mamet's sense of the cinematic; mise-en-scène is neglected for the most pathetic of cause-and-effect narratives. There is a notable exception for the first reel or so, when a downpour and a training session at Terry's dojo seem to suggest a nightclad crossing of those Mamet masses, embodiments of hard-wired, almost crudely pithy lifestyles, and potential is in the air, swirling around Terry's disciplined and confident violence, Mortimer's cliché of mid-sentence frantic frazzle, and a wonderful turn by Max Martini as a scarred cop rehabilitating through the jujitsu regime. But gradually the mystery dries up and Mamet settles the rhythm to a cinema of illustration rather than of questioning, and not even the fantastically earnest, incredibly physically facial performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor can suggest any dynamism in this film obstensibly about warrior ethos in a dog-eat-dog world of capitalism. So we settle into the predictable orbit, marvel at the kind of summation of character and narrative importance as Ricky Jay's "where's the gimmick, let's make some money" single scene intro and outro that is so quintessentially Mamet, and wait for the next character to show up and flame up once or twice before the movie inextricably moves onward.