David Mamet takes his singular style into the rarefied world of jiu-jitsu, but the combination of his hard-bitten dialogue and the very UN Rocky-like milieu of this particular martial arts arena don't really produce satisfying results.
Mike (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a true purist, a master Jiu-jitsu teacher who, along with his wife Sondra (Sonia Braga), operates a rundown academy. At great cost to himself, Mike is not a sellout but his refusal to train his students for the more commercial aspects of the mixed martial arts game leads him into trouble after a freak accident: A wacked-out lawyer (Emily Mortimer) accidentally shoots a cop's gun at the window, sending his life and business into a tailspin. When he coincidentally meets and bails out movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen), the grateful guy offers him a big job and some expensive bling, an act that actually sends him further into debt and into the unwelcoming arms of some very shady dudes including a loan shark (David Paymer) and a fight promoter (sleight of hand artist Ricky Jay). This leads to something he once thought untenable--an invitation to return to the ring for a quick $50 grand and financial salvation.
You can never go wrong with Chiwetel Ejiofor (Talk to Me), one of the leading young actors of his generation who obviously jumped at the opportunity to do Mamet on film. His commanding presence as this stoic but conflicted character makes Mike's increasingly desperate situation human. Ejiofor is totally convincing as a master of Jiu-jitsu, a sport with legions of fans who could easily spot a phony but won't be able to tell the actor apart from the real thing. It's also nice to see Sonia Braga back on screen with a role that has meat on its bones. Reliable pros like Emily Mortimer, as the hyper lawyer, Paymer and Mamet regular Joe Mantegna--who turns up working for Chet--all add color to the proceedings, as does Mamet's real-life wife Rebecca Pidgeon playing Chet's wife. Oddest casting would seem to be Tim Allen, but he blends right in as a film star who has been around the block a few times.
The most accomplished David Mamet screenplays such as The Untouchables, The Verdict, Glengarry Glen Ross and Wag The Dog have been handled by other directors. But Mamet's own coolly detached directorial talents have been used to good effect on fine efforts like 1987's splendid House of Games (his debut) and 10 years later on the fascinating The Spanish Prisoner. Others like Spartan, Oleanna and Heist had problems. So does Redbelt. Here, again tackling his own script, he's certainly right at home in the Jiu-jitsu world and hard-core fans will probably be enthralled, but the detail and clear devotion he has for the sport may actually have the effect of distancing the rest of audience from his film. He's a little TOO into this stuff. It ain't Rocky or all 900 of its imitators and its not meant to be, but the rooting factor just isn't there, despite Ejiofor's fine work. You watch at arm's length. Certainly aspects of his gritty story probably reflect Mamet's uncompromising personality, his own view of the world. That's admirable, but it's not enough to make this well-acted movie anything more than a nice try.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 stars.