This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
David Mamet's "Redbelt" assembles all the elements for a great Mamet film, but they're still spread out on the shop floor. It never really pulls itself together into the convincing, focused drama it promises, yet it kept me involved right up until the final scenes, which piled on developments almost recklessly. So gifted is Mamet as a writer and director that he can fascinate us even when he's pulling rabbits out of an empty hat.
The movie takes place in that pungent Mamet world of seamy streets on the wrong side of town, and is peopled by rogues and con men, trick artists and thieves, those who believe and those who prey on them. The cast is assembled from his stock company of actors whose very presence helps embody the atmosphere of a Mamet story, and who are almost always not what they seem, and then not even what they seem after that. He is fascinated by the deceptions of one confidence game assembled inside another.
At the center of a story, in a performance evoking intense idealism, is Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a martial-arts instructor who runs a storefront studio on a barren city street. His is not one of those glass-and-steel fitness emporiums, but a throwback to an earlier time; the sign on his window promises jiu-jitsu, and he apparently studied this art from those little pamphlets with crude illustrations that used to be advertised in the back pages of comic books. I studied booklets like this as a boy; apparently one embodies the philosophy of The Professor, a Brazilian martial-arts master who is like a god to Mike.
Mike has few customers, is kept afloat by the small garment business of his wife Sondra (Alice Braga), is seen instructing a Los Angeles cop named Joe Collins (Max Martini). When you seem to be your studio's only instructor, the impression is fly by night, but there's a purist quality to Mike's dedication that has Joe completely convinced, and they both seriously believe in the "honor" of the academy.