"Redbelt" (David Mamet, 2008) One considers carefully before accusing David Mamet of writing a fairy tale.* But, considering the genre in which he's working—the sports film, which is almost always a glucose-encrusted, tears-of-joy-stained fantasy (aren't they, basically, "Cinderella stories?")—one also must admit that he's taken as much of the slop out of the form as he can. And if it strains credulity a bit, well...."you gotta sell a story."
Michael Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an ex-military, mixed martial arts/self-defense instructor with an emphasis on ju-jitsu, running a small not prosperous training center in the land of make-believe, L.A. He's a good man doing good deeds, cloistering himself, looking to achieve his own personal best (like so many Mamet men). That he believes in honor, and the proper way ("There's always an escape") would appear to be a weakness. But incidents happen to break the hermitic seal of Terry's life and he soon finds that good deeds do not go unpunished. Encounters with an attorney with coping issues (Emily Mortimer), one of his students (Max Martini), a past-his-prime action star (Tim Allen) and his producer (Joe Mantegna) convolute to seemingly improve his life...but at a cost.
Money and legal issues force him to cross a line he'd never thought to cross—and as a result, he becomes a participant in an exhibition match with all its gloss, hyperbole, myth-making and BS. That the match is based on an anecdote that he casually mentions at a swank party, but rigged to take the chance out of it, only compounds his anger and humiliation at the corruption that he's taking part in, and he must find his own way out of a trap of his own devising. Of his own devising.
It must have been an interesting puzzle for Mamet: "How do I make my own version...my own version...of the most manipulative and phoney-baloney film genre out there and still make it 'Mametian?" And still make it "mean" something. The disciplines and the hierarchical nature of non-exhibition MMA that feed Terry are in direct contrast to the gladiator aspect of the money game, which in the Mamet tradition, is a rigged contest. Even rigged, both Golden Rules** are in play.
Mamet's films usually exhibit stillness, but here, action is used as exposition and Mamet the director fails to do anything but document the moves, and none too well, at that. Clarity is sacrificed for speed, and no matter how long Ejiofor has trained for those scenes—he's great in the role, by the way—his efforts are for naught due to Mamet's direction and cutting of them. The cast is uniformly excellent with Mamet stock company players Ricky Jay and Joe Mantegna breezing through their roles. and Ejiofor making a superb protagonist, aided and abutted by Alice Braga as his practical wife. Tim Allen drains the comedy out of himself and is a bit of a revelation in his well-observed role as an actor coasting. You always knew there was a good actor inside the goof-ball and it's interesting to see him come out. Mamet's story-telling, casting and working with actors has never been in question. It's his use of the camera, now, that needs perfecting if he intends to pursue more action oriented films.
* It's not like he hasn't done that before. You could make a case that "The Untouchables" is so far from the reality of the Elliot Ness-Al Capone story that it's a blood-soaked fairy tale of revenge. But how much that was Mamet, and how much was director Brian DePalma, or the producers one can't say.
** 1. "Do Unto Others as They'd Do Unto You" 2. "The One With the Most Gold Makes the Rules"