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Gentle fighter

Movies | Mamet offers up a manly hero dedicated to principle

Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

It's hard to fight unfairness with your fists, but Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) finds a way in David Mamet's terse, engaging Redbelt, the latest exercise in testosterone-soaked genre filmmaking from the ever-manly screenwriter-director. The twisty plot of Redbelt is Mamet's version of a boxing movie: a crisp fable about overcoming corruption and greed through purity of heart and unswerving devotion to principles higher than yourself.

The R-rated result is surprisingly wholesome, if you can ignore all the swearing: Our hero is a gentle jiu-jitsu instructor living in Los Angeles with his wife (Alice Braga), where he trains police officers and rape victims to parry and avoid their attackers. Since his discharge from the military (which we assume was honorable; everything else about him is), Terry's own life is a study in nonviolence. "Everything has a force," he reasons. "Embrace it or deflect it; why oppose it?" Eventually, though, Terry is drawn into conflict with the sleazy forces controlling the Ultimate Fighting circuit. It's an industry too disgusting to embrace and too large to deflect, so Terry must oppose it.

The trick is that he must fight it without fighting; if he is ever drawn into the ring, Terry loses to a rigged system designed to pander to the bloodthirsty. Ejiofor gives a wonderful performance, and aided by a cast of Mamet regulars (Ricky Jay, David Paymer) and a couple of newcomers (notably Tim Allen), the entire film is executed with the writer's trademark smoothness.

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As Mamet has gotten older, he's become less fascinated by nuance and more interested in justice, going so far as to espouse a conversion from "brain-dead liberalism" (his words) in the pages of one of the nation's most liberal publications, The Village Voice. He still can't write a decent role for a woman, but his movies are fueled by the kind of fury that made his early plays so good. It's directed at a world (or a film industry, not to put too fine a point on it) that values money and speed over nobility and devotion, and on screen, at least, he beats it every time.

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