MOVIE REVIEW- Knotty set-up: Martial arts drama, Mamet style

a still from this week's filmDavid Mamet can beat me in an intellectual competition with one brain tied behind his back, but he may have outsmarted himself with his screenplay (he also directed) for Redbelt. As usual, he employs a magician's tactic of misdirection to divert the viewer's attention from what's really going on, but in this case the diversion is more interesting than the truth, and Mamet confuses us so successfully we may never figure out what actually happened.

Steve WarrenWhile Mike's Brazilian wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), tries to stretch his limited funds too many ways, he goes to a bar owned by her brother, Bruno (Rodrigo Santoro). There Mike finds a customer picking a fight with Chet Frank (Tim Allen in a rare dramatic role; not terribly demanding, but he handles it well), a "tough guy in the movies," and helps settle the ensuing brawl in Chet's favor.

This nets Mike and Sondra an invitation to dinner with Chet, his wife, Zena (Rebecca Pidgeon), and Zena's business partner, Lucy (Jennifer Grey). The women show an interest in Sondra's dress, in an unusual fabric made by her company in Brazil. They order fabric from her, and she borrows $30,000 from loan shark Richard (David Paymer) to fill the order.

Mike visits Chet on the set of the Iraq War drama he's filming and is called on for advice. Before he leaves, he's made a co-producer and invited to dinner with Chet and producer Jerry Weiss (Joe Mantegna), Lucy's husband.

The Terrys' good fortune reverses as quickly as it started, and unkept promises leave them owing money. Mike, who has always resisted fighting professionally, is reduced to accepting an undercard bout at a mixed martial arts fight a month hence from promoter Marty Brown (Ricky Jay).

I'm loving Redbelt to this point, marveling at what Mamet is able to put across without making it seem melodramatic.

Just about everyone gathers for fight night, but it's not clear what has happened in the interim. Sondra seems to be reunited with the business partners who had avoided her. Richard is there, but we're not told if he's been paid off. If so, why is Mike still fighting? Is Mike still involved with Chet's movie, or did that end when Jerry stole his ideas?

What is obvious is that one or more conspiracies are in play. What isn't is who's involved and when they became involved, except that Mike is above the fray.

In true Hollywood fashion, it takes a fight to resolve everything, but Hollywood would have tied up all the plot threads in a neat little bow. Mamet has tied them in a knot no Boy Scout could untangle.