Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
David Mamet's recent "Redbelt" is an example of a kind of movie that needs a name. It's not precisely a thriller, or a suspense picture, or a police procedural, and although it occupies the territory of film noir, it's not a noir. I propose this kind of film be named a Twister, because it's made from plot twists, and in a way the twists are the real subject.
A true Twister is one twist piled on another. It doesn't qualify if the twist is simply an unanticipated ending, as in "Her Life Before Her Eyes," when (spoiler!) we discover that everything after the confrontation with the killer was imagined in the heroine's dying moments. It was her future life that flashed before her eyes. The ending in that film explains and redefines all that went before, and is traditionally called a "twist ending," which is clear enough. It works as a beautiful idea, which comes at the end because that's the only place it belongs. Maybe it's not a twist at all but just the inevitable unfolding of what happened.
Twisters don't twist only at the end. They pull one rug from another out from under our feet, until we're astonished by how many rugs we were standing on. Sometimes it's almost impossible to keep all the versions of reality straight. Sometimes it's a futile exercise, because we realize the film could continue indefinitely. But when a Twister is in the hands of a master like Mamet, it can be devilish and ingenious.
Mamet's first film, the great "House of Games," kept surprising us with the unfolding levels of its con. He's fascinated by con games, and loves to use them in his films and plays. In most of his films, you'll see a saturnine, bearded actor named Ricky Jay, one of his friends, who is a consultant on magic and cons. Jay played one of the poker players in "House of Games," and is the pay-for-view TV promoter in "Redbelt." Mamet even produced a night of Jay's magic, off-Broadway, during which Jay performed the non-Mametian trick of throwing cards at a watermelon so hard they sliced into them.
After the show I went backstage to meet the magician, and was told, "Actually, this isn't the first time we've met. We met in college. You published something by me in a little magazine you edited."
"I don't remember you," I confessed.
"Don't let the name throw you off," he said. "I wasn't named Ricky Jay then."
"What was your name?"
"That, my friend, you will never know."
A nice touch. A nicer one is that in searching Jay's various biographies, I could find no mention of him having attended the University of Illinois. You see how it works. But of course it wasn't mentioned, you say, because he attended under another name. Yes, but he would have known where he went to college. Perhaps he made up his biography. Why? That, my friends, we will never know.
The difference between "House of Games" and "Redbelt" helps define two kinds of Twisters. In "House of Game," the other characters are in on the con, and Lindsay Crouse, their quarry, represents the film's point of view. In "Redbelt," while the manager of the martial arts studio (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the quarry, he becomes a victim on more than one level, and it's hard to see how everyone else could have been in on it, even after some awkward exposition. In every Twister, the audience, by necessity, is kept on the outside, but in some of them, the film itself seems to be the confidence game.
The exposition I was referring to comes when the studio owner bluntly asks how something happened, and is bluntly given the answer. It feels so awkward I almost think Mamet stuck it in after even he found the film hard to follow. Reminds me of the story about the Roger Corman film that made no sense. Two bit actors were brought back to stand in front of a backdrop. One asked, “What does this all mean?" and the other told him. Of course in a Twister, it need not mean, but be.