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Originally published May 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 9, 2008 at 10:54 AM

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Movie review

"Redbelt" — not your typical martial-arts movie

MOVIE REVIEW What would happen if a serious, distinctive director hauled off and made a martial-arts movie? Say, if Stanley Kubrick had...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Redbelt," with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alice Braga, Emily Mortimer, Tim Allen, Joe Mantegna. Written and directed by David Mamet. 99 minutes. Rated R for strong language. Several theaters.

What would happen if a serious, distinctive director hauled off and made a martial-arts movie? Say, if Stanley Kubrick had made a film with Bruce Lee, or if Woody Allen ... all right, not Woody Allen.

David Mamet's take on the trendy new world of mixed martial arts is a gem not quite like anything I've seen before — a smart, absorbing, anti-Hollywood, hypermacho look at what it is to be a true martial artist and a man.

Perfect in a much-deserved leading role, Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Children of Men," "Serenity") is Mike Terry, a teacher of Brazilian jujitsu in seedy West Los Angeles whose wife (Alice Braga) hectors him for being too "pure" to compete in prizefights.

Terry insists that fighting isn't a sport or a game and that treating it as such is weakening. In fact, he doesn't teach people to fight, he says; he teaches them to prevail. It's a samurai code of integrity that's driving them to the poorhouse.

But a chain of events gradually forces Terry toward the ring. A jumpy lawyer (Emily Mortimer) accidentally blasts out the dojo window with the gun of Terry's cop student (Max Martini, from Mamet's TV series, "The Unit"). To preserve the school's honor, the cop lies about it.

Later, Terry's captured on video expertly flattening a few guys in a bar who try to beat up movie star Chet Frank (a puffy-looking Tim Allen, astonishingly not awful). Frank gives Terry a lavish gift and invites him to be a producer and lend expertise to his new action blockbuster.

Terry allows himself to be seduced into the world of the Hollywood types, who are intrigued with his colored-marble gimmick that adds a new wrinkle to bouts. Mistake. As Terry repeats to the struggling cop during a practice session, "There's always an escape."

His determination to do the right thing in every situation sinks him further and further into a mire that'll take an epic confrontation — with only his own moral code, and everyone against him — to escape with his honor intact.

Hey, this is really a western.

The climax and the lawyer's gun accident seriously strain credibility, but that's hardly a mortal blow.

As unusual as "Redbelt" is — for sports, chop socky or drama — it bears Mamet's distinguishing traits. Elaborate con job a la "House of Games" and "The Spanish Prisoner"? Check. (Call this "The Brazilian Prisoner.") Rhythmically repetitious and profane dialogue? Check, but seriously toned down. Stock players? Check: Ricky Jay (sleazy fight promoter), Joe Mantegna (sleazy producer), David Paymer (sleazy lawyer) and Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's wife, as Frank's wife).

Everyone is corrupt in the world Mamet depicts (or documents), except for the scarce few whose honorable behavior only makes their lives harder. Mamet's statement — that integrity in a culture where everything and everyone has a price is lonely-to-suicidal — isn't subtle, but it's well-illustrated.

The clean and uncluttered stillness of Oscar-winner Robert Elswit's ("There Will Be Blood") photography also recalls — and this is a compliment — some of John Carpenter's early greats. And Mamet subverts all the big action beats that a cheese ball like Michael Bay or Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend") would pound you over the head with.

I'm just afraid it may go the way of "Spartan," Mamet's outstanding 2004 spy thriller, which fell under the radar because it was too smart for its own good.

Anyway, now maybe Sidney Lumet could make a movie about the brutal world of Muy Thai fighting.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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