David Mamet’s two cents on the Mixed Martial Arts craze. His first film since Spartan, four years before, again brims with Spartan machismo. “Control your emotions.” “A man distracted is a man defeated.” “Conquer your fear and you conquer your opponent.” These directives, and others out of the same playbook, issue from a disciple of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (the protean Chiwetel Ejiofor, a crinkle of vulnerability scoring his stoical countenance) in an unadorned storefront gym in South Los Angeles, a man “too pure” to make money, as his business-minded wife grumbles, “too pure” in specific to dirty his hands in the pay-per-view fight racket. “Competition,” he elucidates, “is weakening.” Promotion, he might have added, is demeaning. (The filmmaker, seeking only the honest dollar at the box-office, stands squarely behind him.) An apparently fortuitous intervention in a barroom brawl, saving the bacon of a slumming Hollywood action star (Tim Allen, doing for Mamet what Steve Martin did for him, and vice versa, in The Spanish Prisoner), brings about an upturn in his prospects, an offer of a cushy position as co-producer on a big-budget Iraq War movie. Anyone familiar with Mamet, however, will be on the lookout for the hidden motive, the invisible pattern, the controlling intelligence. Even when there’s none there. You can almost believe that the writer-director, himself a purple belt in jiu-jitsu, came to the subject through life rather than through movies, and that he had never seen and studied his countless predecessors and competitors. Almost. There is nothing slack, formulaic, on-autopilot about the unfoldment of the plot; it is unflaggingly focussed, intense, and intriguing. All the way to, but not through, the end. However artfully maneuvered, the climax falls into the corniest convention of the nonviolent hero forced at last, against all his principles, to fight, albeit outside the ring. And the reverent hush of the onlooking crowd is preposterous: a committed practitioner might sometimes, somewhere, be so devout, but never, ever, the bloodthirsty paying customer. The risk of silliness — all this solemnity about “the code of the warrior,” honor, morality, fealty, etc. — has been present and palpable all along. But until the end, Mamet had borne it with the mesmeric deadpan of a Jean-Pierre Melville gangster pastiche. By then, his two cents had accrued to more like two bucks. With Alice Braga, Emily Mortimer, Max Martini, Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Rebecca Pidgeon. (2008) — Duncan Shepherd
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