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Mamet's Redbelt grows on you

I would hate to live in a David Mamet movie.

A simple trip to the deli for a bagel would result in an elaborateconfidence scheme involving the clerk, three delivery boys, and thestore dog. Before I knew it, I'd have signed over my savings account,my house, and all my worldly possessions.

Which means they'd end up with a $5 bill, 12 square feetof caveside property, and a bag of saltines. But I wouldn't have abagel. That's the kind of loss you just don't come back from.

In Redbelt, Mamet's latest, Chiwetel Ejiofor is a jiu jitsuinstructor at a Los Angeles dojo. One night, Emily Mortimer comes inoff the street, distraught and on edge; a dojo student and off-dutycop tries to help her, but Mortimer spooks, grabbing his gun andshooting out the dojo's window.

Rather than ruin her life with an attempted murder charge over anaccident, the cop lets her go. The dojo's walking a thin green line,though. Ejiofor and his wife don't have the money to replace thewindow. Ejiofor goes to his brother-in-law's club to ask for a loan.While there, he sees slumming megastar Tim Allen assaulted by a groupof locals. Ejiofor intervenes, and within seconds, he's beaten theattackers to the ground.

A grateful Allen invites Ejiofor and his wife to dinner. Within days,impressed by Ejiofor's quiet honor and deep knowledge of combat (bothas a martial artist and a veteran), Allen offers to make him aconsultant and producer on Allen's current Iraq War picture. It's astroke of pure fortune. It's too good to be true.

It's a complex rabbit-hole of a plot that takes its time cohering.When it all draws together, it's a show-stopper.

Depending on your feelings towards incredibly distinctive dialogue andthe ins and outs of elaborate cons, Mamet's one of those love/hatedirectors. I'm more of a lover than a hater, as my life-sized posterof Keira Knightley can attest, but with Redbelt, Mamet backsoff some of his dialogic excess without losing the power of hiswriting. If the result isn't yet mainstream, it's a whole lot lesspolarizing, too.

Beyond that, it's Ejiofor and his character that holds Redbelttogether. Ejiofor does a lot of eye-acting here--his face staysplacid while his eyes grow more haunted and hollow with each newbetrayal. It's a great performance, crushing and intense. Hispersonal code is so rigorous he won't even fight in competitions -- theyaren't real fights, real fights aren't fair -- but this code doesn'tmake him naive, it makes him a walking threat, the kind of person whoeither destroys the corrupt men around him or gets destroyed by them.Quite possibly, it's both.

It's also something of a triumphant sports movie, though without allthe regular cliches to clue you in, or the heady pulse of The Eye ofthe Tiger, the extent of Ejiofor's underdog defiance doesn't becomeclear until the credits are about to roll. But it's more than that,too -- the victory's not the important thing, it's the willpower ittakes to become unbeatable.

Redbelt has too many curves to its plot for the movie toaddress them all, little things that don't stick out as problems untilthe glow of its big wrap-up has faded. It takes a while to build itsmomentum, spending a little too much time as just a good movie beforeit starts contending to be a great one. And while this is more assetthan liability, it can be a struggle to keep up with its web ofcharacters and the isolated incidents that begin to define theirlives.

These are mostly the symptoms of a movie taking such big strides thatsometimes the background details get a little blurry. Redbelt's the kind of original vision that might well getbetter the longer you carry it with you.

Grade: B+

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