Knocked Out

David Mamet's mixed martial arts thriller Redbelt lands flat on its back

I can't have been the only person to double-take at the name of Randy Couture on the cast list for Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Mamet's new film. Yes; sure enough it's that Randy Couture, five-time winner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship—and now, apparently, an interpreter of Mamet's notoriously complex dialogue. My only remaining goal now is to see Mike Tyson in the Julliard String Quartet, lispily wondering how to tuck his violin under his chin, given that his neck is wider than his head.

It turns out Couture has been parachuted in to lend a veneer of credibility to Mamet's latest examination of American machismo. This time we're in the world of mixed martial arts, one of the 200 or so activities that claims to be the country's fastest-growing sport.

Despite his high billing, Couture—playing a ringside commentator—isn't actually in Redbelt that much; we barely have time to marvel at the state of his ears. Such short-changing is but one of Redbelt's under-deliveries, and it pales against some of the more cynical deficiencies in this trite little failure of a film.

As Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) sees his dojo edging ever-closer to bankruptcy, the peace-loving jiu-jitsu master comes under increasing pressure to betray his principles and fight for money. If you've ever seen a film before, you'll know what happens next. If you've never seen a film before, I recommend not starting with this one.

Two largely non-intersecting demographics will be drawn to Redbelt; fans of MMA and admirers of David Mamet. Both, I suspect, will walk away disappointed. For the fight aficionados there is just not enough fighting, and what little we see is shot clumsily and confusingly, with no eye for either beauty or brutality. Those preferring their violence in verbal form—those who thrilled to the choppy cadences and deft insults of Oleanna and Glengarry Glen Ross—will also be left bemoaning the long absences of substance and style. A few gnomic mannerisms of speech remain, but, by and large, the script consists of a series of smug epithets that sound like truisms until you realize they're utter nonsense. "Conquer your fear and you will conquer your enemy." Err... not necessarily. "There is no situation you cannot escape from." Really?

There are only two things that make this film worth seeing. The first is a moment of acting by Randy Couture that might possibly be remembered as the worst ever committed to celluloid. It's the one time in the film he's required to express any emotion—in this case surprise—rather than merely delivering lines like, "These guys are going to get it on." There are no lines to fluff here; the action in the script simply reads, "turns away from microphone in order to cough, and in so doing sees a fight breaking out in the crowd." This is a device clumsy enough to confound the grace of a John Gielgud. In the hands of Couture it's like asking a walrus to foxtrot. His inability isn't even comic; it's just depressingly useless. One can't help wondering how many takes they ran up before Mamet, presumably ever-so-slightly scared of Couture, ran out of convincing responses to "What was wrong with that one, David?" and silently resolved to try and cobble a fix together in the edit.

The second stand-out feature of Redbelt is at the other end of the scale. Chiwetel Ejiofor might just be the best actor of his generation. His talent has already sloughed its prefixes of "British" and "black," and he is perhaps three films away now from conquering the world. Since his graduation appearance in Stephen Frears' unmissable Dirty Pretty Things, he has shown a proven ability to make a good film great and a bad one watchable. He even came close to redeeming Woody Allen's 2004 insult to cinema, Melinda & Melinda.

Ejiofor provides the one mesmeric moment in Redbelt when his character prevails in a bar fight. He rises slowly to his feet and looks around him, his eyes calmly drinking in the light as his lungs still thrash noisily.

But it's beyond even Ejiofor's abilities to save this feeble affair. In his belief that he can transcend the limitations of an over-familiar genre, Mamet clearly sees a parallel between himself and the fighters in his film who are required to spar with one hand tied behind their backs. After Redbelt, however, Mamet's career may well be out for the count. m