Mamet's dialogue often feels artificial, nearly spastic. No one talks that way, except for dumb oily salesmen -- his usual trade -- and punch-drunk fighters from B-movies.
And yet, "Redbelt" feels special, as many film critics have noted. Mamet eventually gets around to trashing his own movie ... but first let's check out all the good stuff:
English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is sensational as Mike Terry, a jujitsu instructor working out of a modest L.A. dojo. Terry is equally hardcore and zen-like. We see his adult students battle to the verge of blacking out, but the teacher has no zest for pointless fighting.
Out of nowhere, the world declares war on the modest martial artist, attacking on multiple fronts.
First, a drug-dependent lawyer (Emily Mortimer, another Brit) accidently shoots out the school's front window while arguing with a cop who's a student. Call it blunt foreshadowing. Then, Terry rescues a TV action star who's outnumbered in a bar brawl. The grateful actor (Tim Allen, terrifically blank) rewards Terry with a an expensive watch and some Tinsel Town-thin friendship. The man-crush brings the martial arts master nothing but grief.
Meanwhile, evil mixed-martial arts promoters rip off Terry's signature teaching device of using a blind draw of marbles to assign handicaps to fighters.
This stew of bad mojo turns rancid, leaving the elegant martial artist with no alternative but to fight for survival -- $50,000 in prize money awaits if he abandons his existential code of honor, which doesn't allow for competition fighting.
Mamet's usual assortment of hustlers and users makes its appearance. The cast includes Ricky Jay, David Paymer and Joe Mantegna. As "Redbelt" descends into an old-fashioned fight movie, the Mamet rap sounds at home. Bring on the spit buckets and big cigars.
"Redbelt's" climax feels like a sellout of all that has come before -- the movie's well-earned emotions squandered on the preposterous. Still, the performances, fight scenes and compelling narrative set-up make "Redbelt" a winner by split decision.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released "Redbelt" on Blu-ray and DVD. Robert Elswit's widescreen images roll out at a dramatic 2.40:1. The Blu-ray shows off the production's sometimes subtle, oftentimes colorful crafts work to best effect. The Blu-ray's Dolby TrueHD 5.1 delivers the blow-by-blow action with accuracy and impact.
Of working in showbiz with real fighters, as he did in "Redbelt," Mamet says, "They don't bring a lot of bullshit to the equation. ... They spend their lives suffering. So they have extraordinary character."
Mamet had been training in jujitsu for about five years when he shot the movie. His Brazilian instructors helped choreograph "Redbelt," along with other known fighters. They're all profiled in a cool and snappy animated slide show.
"We got real, real lucky with actors," Mamet says. Leading man Ejiofor reminds the writer-director of Henry Fonda, the two sharing a "spectacular stillness."
"(Ejiofor) has such a beautiful face and looks like a fighter," Mamet says of his star. (He's not. I've trained in karate and came away from the film assuming he was a martial artist.)
Anyone wondering what the deal is with the Ultimate Fighting Championship should get their hands on one of these discs. The extras collectively present a decent primer on the league, its stars and MMA in general.
UFC president Dana White does a 16-minute interview, talking about MMA's Brazilian roots, early opposition from politicians such as John McCain (he called it "human cock fighting") and the sport's phenomenal success on cable TV.
The MMA fighting style is to employ numerous fighting styles all at once. Bruce Lee would have approved, White says: "He tried to get away from styles. ... He believed you need to train in everything to be a complete fighter."
UFC, he says, "Still is pure. It hasn't been corrupted." The DVD's documentarians aren't asking hard questions here.
Mamet shares the commentary with five-time UFC champion Randy Courture. As you'd expect, the track works best during the action scenes, although Mamet usually has something interesting to say.
* * * * *
The wounds in "August" are mostly self-inflicted. Josh Hartnett stars as a jerk who runs an Internet startup into the ground in the days just before 9/11 -- and just after the bubble burst all over Silicon Valley.
Even his engineer brother (Adam Scott), can't stand the guy.
The movie feels cold, partly because the main character slithers so successfully for much of the tale. He richly deserves an ass-beating, but when it comes, you find it hard to cheer. He's too much of a young twit to be a villain; too much of a dick to classify as a proper antihero.
David Bowie shows up as a Wall Street predator and avenger, a terrifically creepy performance in a bit part. Get a load of the startup office's pack of slackers, the laziest bunch since Cybill Shepherd's nameless staff on "Moonlighting."
First Look Studios' release of the indie film, by sophomore director Austin Chick, comes without bonus features, unfortunately. The film leaves you wanting to know more about what was what when the first generation of dot-com millionaires plunged back to earth.
Calendar "August" as a good rental title (for those not put off by the description).
New and notable:
Alfresco (Acorm Media)
August (First Look Studios)
Brotherhood of the Wolf: Director's Cut (Universal)
Chicago 10 (Paramount)
Color Honeymooners Collection 4 (MPI Home Video)
Duchess of Duke Street (Acorn)
Errol Flynn Westerns Collection (Warner)
Everybody Hates Chris, season 3 (Paramount)
How the West Was Won (also Blu-ray, Warner)
Linda Lovelace for President (Dark Sky Films/MPI)
The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning (Disney)
NCIS, season 5 (Paramount)
Pale Rider (Warner)
The President's Collection (Paramount)
Purple Violets (Weinstein Co./Genius Products)
Redbelt (also BR, Sony)
Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (The Criterion Collection)
The Shield, season 6 (Sony)
The Three Stooges Collection: 1940-1942, Vol. 3 (Sony)
Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (also BR, Disney)
What Happens In Vegas (Fox)
Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? (Weinstein/Genius Products)