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On Film: Mamet's not in fighting trim in 'Redbelt'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Meanness abounds, and David Mamet has always taken an almost unseemly amount of delight in rooting it out, usually in places you would already expect to find it.

As a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Mamet plumbed the nasty depths of the real estate business (“Glengarry Glen Ross”), Hollywood (“Speed-the-Plow”) and academia (“Oleanna”). In recent years, Mamet has mounted most of his ungenerous tales on the screen, both the large one (in such movies about tricksters and other criminals as “House of Games” and “The Spanish Prisoner”) and the small one. (He writes and co-produces “The Unit,” a network series about a small corps of elite fighting men.)

To Mamet, almost always, life is a battle, sometimes of wits, sometimes of words, sometimes of guns and fists and feet. For Mamet, who called his 2004 political thriller “Spartan,” the heroes of life consist of a few good men – or even one good man – against the nasty multitudes.

In his latest movie, the sometimes laughably melodramatic “Redbelt,” Mamet casts his withering gaze on the testosterone-drenched TV extravaganza known as mixed martial arts, an endeavor that many people will find problematic even without seeing it through the blood in Mamet’s eyes. At the same time that he deplores the televised mayhem, Mamet, himself a student of jiu-jitsu, celebrates the Asian-born physical and mental disciplines behind it.

At the center of “Redbelt,” surrounded by more villains than you can readily count, is Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a jiu-jitsu instructor who has nothing but scorn for the “Ultimate Fighting” featured on cable channels. Terry thinks of the art of jiu-jitsu, which was invented by Japanese samurai and has been further developed by Brazilian martial artists, as a key to a disciplined moral life, not a way to earn big bucks in the ring.

“Competition weakens the fighter,” he proclaims, in what may be either profound paradox or pure nonsense, meaningless zenspeak in pursuit of a heroic principle. (How can fighting not be competitive? Jiu-jitsu is not exactly ballet. Perhaps readers can enlighten me on this point.)

Despite Terry’s resistance to entering the ring, a series of unlikely events squeezes the hero into a moral corner and forces him to agree to a televised bout. Then he discovers that the matches are fixed, a fact that should be obvious solely from the sleazy types he encounters in the fight game. They are played by such Mamet lowlife regulars as Joe Mantegna and Ricky Jay, plus comedian Tim Allen in a surprisingly convincing performance as a mobbed-up movie actor. (Most of the performances in “Redbelt” are better than the script deserves, although Ejiofor, the calm at the middle of the storm, sometimes seems more baffled than stoic.)

After some highly unconvincing fight sequences, shown mostly in close-ups that obscure any fancy moves these men might be making, the film comes to an overblown ending that suggests “Rocky” more than the dark fight films that Mamet professes to admire, such as “The Harder they Fall” and “Raging Bull.” There is very little about “Redbelt” that is believable or inspiring, and the ending is as flat as a veteran cagefighter’s nose.

'Live and Become'

In the 1980s, thousands of Ethiopian Jews displaced by civil war were surreptitiously airlifted in the dead of night from Sudanese refugee camps to Israel, where they had the right to become citizens under the nation’s Law of Return. Some of the refugees, it later became apparent, were Christians who had lied about their heritage to escape the overcrowded, famine-beset camps. “Live and Become” is a thought-provoking, generally effective feature film about one of those refugees, a young Christian boy who takes the name and identity of Solomon, a Ethiopian Jewish boy who died in the camp.

The 9-year-old boy who becomes Solomon barely understands what is happening to him when his mother insists he leave the refugee camp without her. He feels lost, and it is many years before he comes to realize that his mother had not rejected him but had offered him salvation at great personal sacrifice.

Solomon, quickly nicknamed Schlomo, is adopted by a young Israeli couple who already has two children. Very slowly, he comes to accept the love of his new family. Still, as Schlomo (played at different stages by three actors) grows into adulthood, he remains haunted by the fact that he is living a lie that reaches to the core of his identity.

His struggle is made even more complicated by racism. He is constantly reminded that he is the only black child in his school, and at one point some of the parents of other children decide the childhood pimples on his face are the outward signs of some fearsome African disease. In a powerful scene in a schoolyard crowded with children and parents, his adoptive mother berates the other parents for their racial prejudice, takes Schlomo in her arms and kisses and licks his face.

The first half of the movie, as young Schlomo struggles to make sense of his new world, is gripping. The second half is somewhat less successful, as Romanian-French filmmaker Radu Mihaileanu seems to be reaching for an epic portrayal of two decades of the history of Israel. The movie at times begins to seem crowded and hurried, despite its length of two hours and 20 minutes. But the director keeps infusing energy into the narrative by returning to the central figure.

Schlomo falls in love with an Israeli girl whose father rejects the idea of his daughter being with a black boy, particularly one who, the father believes, lied about being a Jew to escape to Israel. It is a provocative irony that the father, despite his racism, is, in one sense, right about Schlomo, and Schlomo knows it. To the filmmaker’s credit, “Live and Become” leaves the irony unresolved – ultimately, the film is about a life built on a lie, a life that turns out to be a good one.

Opens May 9.

Harper Barnes, St. Louis, is an author and free-lance writer.

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