Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the head of a martial arts academy in Los Angeles, and has devised a way of improving his pupils' technique so they can still win a fight even if disabled in some manner. Both combatants will take a stone out of a choice of three, one black and two white, and if they pick the black one they are given a handicap according to a random choice, for example tonight one fighter has his hands bound. As they are wrapping up the evening's teachings, a harrassed woman, Laura Black (Emily Mortimer) rushes in and ends up panicking and shooting out the front window with the pistol of one cop pupil, Joe (Max Martini) - an accident which will haunt Mike...
David Mamet writing and directing a martial arts movie? Yes, it happened, but don't go into this expecting wall to wall fight sequences as the protagonist has to beat up a succession of bad guys, Redbelt was far more about the philosophy of staying true to your ideals, decked out with that crackling Mamet dialogue, here a lot more palatable than in some of his other, more arch works. Here he taps into a sense of masculinity that says, yes, this ju-jitsu will help you to beat your opponent in hand to hand combat, but it will also provide you with a successful model to live your life by.
Of course, for the first half of the film we simply have to take Mike's word for it, because there's a lot of setting up to do as the story assembles the stiuations that will put him to the test. In a way it ends up like High Noon, with Mike the only truly honorable man left in the film and hardly anybody willing to stand up for him (although he does have the love of a good woman - just not the one you might expect). So it's not really a kung fu epic we're offered, more of a modern day western that suits the plot's concentration on how a code of morals can help you.
There's no situation so bad that you can't get out of it and turn it to your advantage, that's the lesson Mike tells his students, and at first we think he's talking about the hand to hand fighting style, but over the course of the film we come to realise it can apply to the trials and tribulations that we go through in our lives as well. In a complicated series of events, Mike saves an ageing action movie actor, Chet Frank (Tim Allen) from a bar brawl and in return he is invited to a dinner at his plush home. There Chet gives him an expensive watch, and Mike's wife Sondra (Alice Braga) wins a chance to design a new clothing line with the backing of Chet's wife (Rebecca Pidgeon).
Great, until Mike gives the watch to Joe to pawn it, it turns out to be stolen, now questions are being asked by the cops about how that window came to be broken with Joe's gun, Sondra has taken a huge loan for from a gangster for Chet's wife and now cannot get her to return her calls, unscrupulous promoters have stolen Mike's three stones idea for their latest televised contest, and Mike is put into the kind of metaphorical chokehold that he is struggling to free himself from. It's true you can see the gears working here as Mamet puts his lead in an impossible situation and forces his to assess his principles when it looks as if they are now a liability to him, but Ejiofor being his usual magnetic presence we're backing Mike all the way, willing him to win this bout and prove to those corrupted souls around him that he is worthy of his closely-guarded ethics. The result is very satisfying, if implausible. Music by Stephen Endelman.