Redbelt & Taken

Twinned curiosities this week, with David Mamet, American cinema’s snarling id, bringing us his jiu-jitsu Rocky and Liam Neeson laying waste to all around him in a politically whiffy French kidnap drama? What next – Anthony Hopkins pointing a glowing finger in E.T. II: Elliot’s Revenge? Cameron Diaz outing vile spots in Judd Apatow’s Macbeth?

Redbelt, titled after the highest grade of expertise in the sport, a cross between judo and wrestling, is essentially a chopsocky drama. This description that might seem like a departure for the heavyweight writer and director, but Mamet always twisted genre archetypes to suit his own ends. Different tales told in a distinctive voice, his films share the same blank tone, unmistakable staccato dialogue, deftly pleated storylines and an uncommon throb of excess testosterone.

Redbelt is a Mamet from the opening frames, an experiment in channelling the zen of Bruce Lee through the conduit of Jean Luc Godard’s infamous dictum that “all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun”. The girl is Laura (Emily Mortimer), the gun belongs to LA policeman Joe (played by Max Martini), who leaves it lying on a bench in a failing martial arts studio run by Mike (Chiwetel Ejiofor). High-flying lawyer Laura is jonesing for her anti-anxiety medication and in an excited moment grabs the pistol. It goes off, setting in a motion a series of unlikely events that will change Mike’s life dramatically and test the patience of even the most serene viewer.

Mike isn't just a teacher, he's a guru, an aesthetic monk who follows a strict code of honour in life and in combat. Even though he is broke, a fact wife Sondra (Alice Braga) reminds him of daily, Mike refuses to enter fighting competitions, believing they corrupt and demean his sport. In a rush of developments, Mike saves movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) from a beating in a bar and is invited to dinner by way of thanks. There he meets Chet’s sleazy manager (Joe Mantegna) who brings him on board the film and gifts him an expensive watch. Life, for once, looks good for Mike and Sondra, who makes an important business connection with Chet’s wife (played by Mamet’s wife, Rebecca Pidgeon).

Mike the warrior philosopher is the typical Mamet hero, a throwback to a time of honour and values. In the developing scam, Mike is the patsy, the mark, and like the best of his kind, he is oblivious to his status. He makes the mistake in thinking that everybody is like him, honest and sincere. The story, based in part on Mamet’s own experiences as a jiu-jitsu student, soon becomes needlessly, wilfully complicated but Ejiofor has reserves of stoic serenity to play with, a calm charisma that maintains our interest in the early part of the story. It doesn’t hold, partly because Mike remains a character without a story of his own, a collection of ideas and surface indicators. It’s to Ejiofor’s credit that he remains as watchable as he does for as long as he does.

Redbelt might appear tough but Mamet pulls too many of his punches, unable to communicate Mike’s impotent rage with the same verve he brings to the spitfire dialogue and bewildering disclosures. These elements are what make the film uniquely Mamet, but are also what suffocate it in familiarity. His intellectual machismo has become cliché, his determination to befuddle a narrative tic, even the secondary cast is assembled from the writer and director’s stock company of actors. These familiar faces spout beautifully poised epithets across Mamet’s recognisable spaces, affecting an unruffled, world-weary disdain as they punctuate their emphatic line readings with oddly spaced pauses.

So focused is Mamet on pulling the wool over our eyes he reduces his emotional material - a suicide in disgrace, an emotional betrayal - to throwaway lines of dialogue that bounce off Mike’s broad chest without effecting so much as a flinch. Instead we get an increasingly preposterous story about maintaining the Corinthian spirit in sport, spliced into a green ink essay on the machinations of unscrupulous movie producers.

Mamet loves these characters for their smart mouths and their balls but doesn’t seem at all interested in their souls. He revels in poking around in the background of their lives but Redbelt remains a tentative snoop around dimly lit corners, ignoring the potential in darker basements and distracted by the inexorable crawl towards the climactic fight. The problem is not the density of the drama or the preponderance of narrative blind alleys; it’s that the plot lacks all coherence and consistency. The trap Mamet springs is dependent on hastily explained (if we’re lucky) off-screen interventions and a long series of plausibility-sapping coincidences. Even after another character carefully explains the ending to him, Ejiofor looks none the wiser.

Taken, the new film from District 13 director Pierre Morel, has Liam Neeson playing a kind of middle-aged Jason Bourne, a retired CIA agent who is forced into action when his teenage daughter is kidnapped by human traffickers in Paris. All towering menace, Neeson plays single-dad Bryan Mills, who is on the phone with his 17-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), when she and her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) are taken from their holiday apartment by Albanian gangsters who steal unaccompanied women and sell them into slavery. Having already established the schism between Bryan and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), Neeson’s highly-trained killer boards her new husband’s private jet and touches down in Paris to start the search for his daughter.

Armed with little more than a briefcase full of high-tech gizmos and his own hungry fists, the infinitely resourceful Bryan races around the city, extracting vital information from the scantiest of leads while dishing out cold-blooded retribution. Having established Byran as a superman, Neeson is allowed to do some pretty extraordinary things – in effect, he can do what he likes – striding into the gang’s hideout, shooting dozens of swarthy assailants, evading the French police and the piqued Albanians while gradually getting closer to the truth of what has happened to Kim.

Director Pierre Morel has a great eye for action and an ability to maintain tension through even the most unlikely developments. Taking his cue from producer Luc Besson’s commitment to narrative momentum and Paul Greengrass’s livewire photography, Morel delivers a series of beautifully choreographed, high-octane action sequences and bruising fight scenes, in contrast to the overly expedient script, which sees scores of ‘foreigners’ fall victim to Bryan’s righteous vengeance, shot where they stand for getting in his way.

Neeson is 56 now but he remains an effective, efficient action man – he was a Jedi Knight, remember - a credible threat right from the opening scenes. Taken is trimmed back to the bone, and moves at such a blistering pace, that the Ballymena actor is only required to express wrinkle-eyed concern and flared-nostril wrath, but he does both extremely well. Around him however, the secondary cast flounder. Janssen’s role amounts to almost nothing, acting as a foil for scene-setting resentments and then dissolving into a voice on the phone. Grace, a 25 year old playing 17, is overly excited in the set-up, innocently giggling and skipping on her way to her doom before her character is reduced to a focal point for Bryan’s revenge.

Redbelt and Taken are odd, jumpy stories about absurdly driven men in dangerous surroundings fighting to retain the only thing that remains dear to them. They share a gritty sense of realism but are stiff with genre formalities and hobbled with implausibilities. In the end, the difference between the two films – why one bears the ugly brand of two-star disdain and the other gets a tentative recommendation – is a question of intent.

Taken takes action seriously, casually administering regular jolts of adrenaline that compels the viewer through the story. Redbelt has just as many opportunities to deliver thrills, but is too preoccupied with higher thoughts to properly address matters of the gut. Taken moves in an unswerving straight line at tremendous speed, Redbelt meanders distractedly before rushing its conclusions in a fumble. Redbelt thinks it is Greek Tragedy, Taken knows it is a fantasy. One aspires to have meaning, the other couldn't care less.

This post is a so-far unique two-for-one deal. A recessionary move.
I was struck by how similar and how different both films are, even though they come from completely different places.


Max deBooy said...

Neeson also played somewhat of an action badass in Batman Begins (Ra's Al Ghul), an unlucky one in Gangs Of New York and presumably a kilted one in Rob Roy if anyone's ever seen it.
It somehow still takes the setup with the popstar before we're comfortable with it in Taken for some reason.

The political subtext to Taken was glaring - The kidnappers are Eastern Europeans (grr) and along with the Arabs (spit) they have stolen virginal lady liberty. Oh, and never ask the French for help, they're useless lily-livered appeasers. This is a job for Americans who know how dangerous the world is. Is there a doctrine in the house?

Still a very enjoyable action escapism movie.

I must check out Redbelt.

David said...

Agreed, Max! It's about time we started seeing the occasional Arab villain showing up on our movie screens! Too often nowadays we get movies where the terrorist-baddies who are originally ASSUMED to be Arabs turn out to be from Western Europe or the U.S. And of course, you and I both know that the majority of terrorist acts being committed in the world today (today, folks, not decades ago, and not during the crusades, but!!!) are being committed by Muslim extremists, and it's high time the movies started reflecting a little reality.

Thanks again, Max!

Talk soon!