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Redbelt (7/10)

by Tony Medley

Writer-director David Mamet has a problem ending his films. I’ve sat through some, like, for instance, “The Spanish Prisoner” (1997), that were pretty interesting until the ending. Then the ending is so weak as to render the entire film forgettable.

In this, he writes of one of his favorite activities, ju-jitsu. He has done a fine job of making a sensitive homage to an activity he loves. His protagonist, Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiiofor) is a devoted teacher who has eschewed competitive fights, opting instead to teach ju-jitsu and its philosophy. He’s married to an ambitious woman, Sontra (Alice Braga), a Brazilian whose brother appears to be a gangster. During a rainstorm a woman, Laura Black (Emily Mortimer), bursts into his gym and causes a problem that shakes up everyone’s life, which causes Mike to have to consider fighting to get the money he needs.

Mamet has a way with dialogue. You can generally tell something’s been written by him even if you don’t know. I can’t tell whether it’s ineffective acting or just the dialogue, but it’s never really believable to me. I think the dialogue in this film is probably closer to the mark than any of his previous efforts, but it still sounds like guys trying to sound tough. The only really believable actor is Tim Allen, who plays a movie star, Chet Frank, who apparently tries to befriend Terry.

The weakest performance is by Ricky Jay, who plays Marty Brown, a sleazy promoter, although Joe Mantegna, who plays Jerry Weiss, a promoter who works for Chet Frank, gives Jay a run for his money. Mantegna’s portrayal corresponds to his appearance as Spenser in the second TV series about Robert Parker’s private eye. Mantegna’s inferior performances might be due to material. Even though there was no singing, his portrayal of Dean Martin in TV’s “The Rat Pack” (1998), is as good an interpretation of a star as I’ve seen. Although about over-publicized icons, “The Rat Pack” is a film worth viewing.

This film builds up to a climax, and then finishes with an ending that lacks credibility, marring what came before. I came out of this film with the same feeling I had after watching “The Spanish Prisoner”, to wit, “What a pity.” Still, this is entertaining until the end.

April 17, 2008