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Redbelt (Sony, R)

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redbelt.jpgMamet’s characteristic style is on full display here. His characters use language as a weapon and means of deception, speaking in stylized, clipped patterns carefully crafted for effect, which is similar but not quite like the way anyone really talks.

Don’t go to Redbelt, the new film written and directed by David Mamet, expecting a conventional martial arts film. True, the main character runs a jujitsu school, and there’s plenty of nicely choreographed action inside and outside the ring. Mamet even checks off most of the expected clichés, but with an entirely different purpose. Like his other films and plays, Redbelt takes place in the Mamet universe, which only sometimes resembles the world the rest of us live in.

Remember, we’re talking about David Mamet. The guy who wrote House of Games and Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo. You can begin with the assumption that if he takes on a new genre, in this case the martial arts film, the result will be out of the ordinary. The trick is knowing when a cliché is just a cliché, and when it’s a revelation. And when you are most sure you know what’s going on, that’s when you’re about to get taken.

Mamet’s characteristic style is on full display here. His characters use language as a weapon and means of deception, speaking in stylized, clipped patterns carefully crafted for effect, which is similar but not quite like the way anyone really talks. They are obsessed with establishing domination, by treachery and conniving rather than physical force, and you won’t know who’s really who until the movie is over.

The large cast is uniformly excellent. Some are from the Mamet stock company, including Ricky Jay and Joe Mantegna. Others principals include Tim Allen in a role about as far from Home Improvement as it is possible to be, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a role which at first seems so painfully conventional that I actually felt sorry for him. Silly me to take a Mamet character at face value. Alice Braga and Emily play contrasting female characters that at first seem to be tangential at best to the male action, but you’d be a fool to place too much trust in first impressions.

I won’t even try to summarize the plot. Not only would it spoil the fun, but the story told plainly would sound conventional, even silly. The experience of the movie is anything but, and the difference lies in Mamet’s style and carefully calibrated pacing. He gives out information in little pieces, not always making it obvious that it IS information, and the false leads can seem as real as the true.

Redbelt’s visual style is as distinctive as Mamet’s language, and serves his text well. The cinematography by Robert Elswit is mostly of muted interiors: when a bright color appears, it jumps out of the frame like neon. Barbara Tulliver’s editing is a perfect reflection of Mamet’s contentious verbal style: it keeps the viewer off-balance with rapid cuts between close-ups. Redbelt rarely uses an establishing shot to introduce a change of scene, preferring to plunge viewers directly into the action and let them sort it out. | Sarah Boslaugh

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