In "Redbelt," acclaimed playwright/filmmaker David Mamet attempts a thinking-man's martial arts movie.
If that sounds like a contradiction -- well, it is.
British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Dirty Pretty Things," "Children of Men") is Mike Terry, operator of a Los Angeles jujitsu academy. The form of Brazilian martial arts Mike practices is virtually his religion, demanding the utmost in physical, mental and spiritual purity.
It may be good for Mike's soul, but not his pocketbook. The academy is circling the financial toilet bowl, creditors are calling and his Brazilian wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), is fed up at having to underwrite the martial arts operation with the meager profits from her fabric importing business.
Their fortunes seem to improve after Mike saves the neck of an over-the-hill action movie star during a bar brawl.
The actor, Chet Frank (a wonderfully dissipated Tim Allen), is so grateful he invites Mike and Sondra to his Beverly Hills mansion. He offers to make Mike a producer and consultant on his new war movie; meanwhile Sondra strikes up a friendship with the movie star's wife (Rebecca Pigeon, aka Mrs. Mamet), who wants her to partner in a new fashion company.
As the financial advisers are fond of telling us, if it sounds too good to be true, it's probably too good to be true.
Too late the couple realize they are pawns in an elaborate scheme to get Mike, who regards professional fighting as unsavory and unethical, to participate in a big mixed martial arts competition.
When Frank and his cronies stop answering Mike's calls, and with Sondra deep in debt to a loan shark, Mike has no choice but to put his ethics aside and join the fray in the hope of winning enough prize money to stay afloat.
"Redbelt" has been well acted, particularly by Ejiofor, who makes Mike's Yoda-like pronouncements seem almost deep, and Mamet veteran Joe Mantegna, who is borderline reptilian as a sleazy movie producer.
It features that characteristically biting Mamet dialogue, paints a devastating portrait of Hollywood perfidy and is clearly less interested in the actual fighting than in the philosophy and lifestyle that supports it.
Even so, this is still a martial arts movie and whatever questions of right and wrong it raises will be decided in the last reel by somebody kicking somebody else's booty.
Another problem: Martial arts stories (in fact all sports movies) are by their very nature melodramatic, and Mamet has never been good with melodrama. "Redbelt" is a narrative Gordian knot, filled with peripheral characters and story threads -- like a puzzling subplot involving a substance-abusing lawyer (Emily Mortimer) -- that go unexplored and unresolved.
Mamet, who has been studying jujitsu for five years, is obviously fascinated by the subject and the difficulties of living an austere philosophy in this wicked world.
But he may be too close to the material. "Redbelt" is screaming for the guidance of someone with enough distance from the subject to mold it into satisfying drama.