dir-scr David Mamet
with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Emily Mortimer, Alice Braga, Joe Mantegna, Tim Allen, Ricky Jay, David Paymer, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Rodrigo Santoro, Max Martini, Rebecca Pidgeon, Jennifer Grey
release US 9.May.08, UK 26.Sep.08
08/US Sony 1h39
Let's make a deal: Allen and Ejiofor

mortimer braga mantegna
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
Redbelt Muscular filmmaking and a riveting central performance make this film worth seeing. Even if the plot itself becomes far too messy to really engage with us, the characters are edgy and enthralling.

Mike (Ejiofor) runs a Brazilian jujitsu academy with his wife Sondra (Braga), pushing students to control their emotions and take charge of their lives. And Mike's about to be tested with fire. After a stranger (Mortimer) sparks an incident with a student (Martini) who happens to be a cop, Mike is approached by a movie star (Allen) and a producer (Mantegna), who offer him work just when he needs money to pay some big debts. But events seem to be conspiring to push Mike in directions he doesn't want to go.

As a writer, Mamet's up to his usual tricks, assembling a fiendishly literate screenplay that refuses to explain the characters' clearly complicated pasts. We just know that all of this is happening now, and whether Mike is being pushed to victory or tragedy is anyone's guess. As a director, Mamet undercuts this brainy approach with macho filmmaking edited to the rhythm of tribal drums as the varied plot strands and characters become tightly entangled around Mike like opponents in a jujitsu ring.

And with the electric Ejiofor in the middle, it's thrilling to watch. Even though the script never digs under the surface, Ejiofor finds Mike's soul, a piercing energy with an intense Zen undercurrent. And around him, a solid cast creates supporting characters that provide the texture and give Mike the punching bags he needs, as it were. Standouts include Mortimer's distracted lawyer, Jay's live-wire fight promoter and Santoro's slick brother-in-law/agent.

The knotty characters and situations keep us watching, even though Mamet never quite delivers the goods. Without back-story, the plot seems to circle and twist for its own sake, so it becomes increasingly implausible. Even some emotional scenes feel dropped in at random, to try to distract us from over-complications and contrivances. The police stuff, the marriage problems, the movie set illusion, the alcoholism--all of these things are merely alluded to. They clearly aren't Mamet's point. So it's up to Ejiofor to deliver the goods with no help at all. Which is the point entirely.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 15.Sep.08

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© 2008 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall