Like so many ambitious writers, David Mamet has many faces. There's the street-smart thriller craftsman behind Homicide, Heist, and Spartan. The sly, stagey twist-meister behind House Of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, and Glengarry Glen Ross. The sentimental softie of Things Change and State And Main. (There's also the work-for-hire hack that signed onto the screenplay for Hannibal, and the clumsy, self-satisfied provocateur who wrote Oleanna, but the less said about them, the better.) But no previous project has so thoroughly fused his filmmaking facets as Redbelt, a superior, sophisticated, and unusually gentle character study where the point isn't the twists, so much as watching how one man's belief system holds up through them.
Further cementing his well-earned reputation for sensitivity and depth, Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Children Of Men) stars as a small-time jujitsu instructor with an unyielding sense of honor that comes into play when jittery lawyer Emily Mortimer causes an accident at his street-front dojo. From there, the plot unfolds in several directions, with an oppressive sense of inevitability standing in for a clear, linear plotline. Ejiofor's business is failing, as his wife (Alice Braga) curtly informs him, and the Mortimer incident may be the last straw. A chance encounter with a drunken, slumming Hollywood star (Tim Allen, in a surprisingly internal performance) may help, but Braga's brother, a sleazy fight promoter, pulls in another direction by trying to get Ejiofor involved in a pro mixed-martial-arts tournament. As with the best of Mamet's scripts, it isn't clear where any of this is going until the threads suddenly, thunderously collide.
The film unravels a bit in the last few moments, amid unanswered story questions and a simplistic climax, but until that moment, Redbelt is Mamet's richest film of the decade. Having spent five years studying jujitsu himself, he's well familiar with the varying types of people who take up martial arts, and the complicated, insular scenes they create. His story is as steeped in the many mentalities of fighting as his past standout works were steeped in the language of police precincts and con artists. And while the physical combat is minimal—this is a character drama, not a traditional martial-arts film—the emotional battles are immense. Abandoning much of his familiar, artificially mannered dialogue, Mamet brings them across with a narrative directness that belies the complicated story, and Ejiofor adds in a riveting determination and strength. There's a sense that they both care immensely about what they're doing here, and that, above everything else, makes Redbelt stand out from Mamet's past experiments, games, and genre exercises.