For this to work, David Mamet should have directed only the first hour – then brought in Yuen Woo-Ping or some other experienced, knockout martial arts choreographer-director to handle the climax. As in Spartan, his shot at a military covert ops action pic, the script underpinnings and the characters are there, but the film doesn’t have the muscle even a mid-level Steven Seagal vehicle could manage – and since it’s at heart a kung fu movie, it really needs to land its punches.
The set-up is typical of the story traps Mamet likes in his movies. Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), proprietor of an honourable but struggling Los Angeles jiu-jitsu studio, trains cops, bodyguards and the like but will not get in the professional ring because ‘competition weakens the fighter’ and his schools his pupils to ‘prevail’ not put on a show. After skirmish involving a jittery lawyer Laura Black (Emily Mortimer) we first take for a drug addict but who is actually a traumatised rape survivor and decent cop Officer Joe (Max Martini) who is among the best pupils in the class, Mike is set about by a wide range of perhaps-conspiring acquaintances – Hollywood celebrity couple Chet and Zena Frank (Tim Allen, probably ‘doing’ Bruce Willis, Rebecca Pidgeon), smarmy producer-promoter Jerry Weiss (Joe Mantegna), ultimate fight-type mixed martial arts tycoon Marty Brown (Ricky Jay) and his own fallen-from-grace fighter brother in law Augusto (John Machado) – to lose his school and his honour, and even his marriage to dress-designer Sondra (Alice Braga). Unlike House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner or Heist – which are all about the con – there’s a slight fudge about who’s doing what to who for what ultimate ends, but the playing, especially by Ejiofor and Mortimer, sells the desperation of the situation, which even extends to Mike losing a distinctive training tool (choosing a black or white marble before the fight to determine if one of the fighters is handicapped) to the glitzy, rigged fight business.
The climax finds Mike forced to compete in the undercard of a major bout between his Brazilian brother-in-law and Japanese master Morisaki (Enson Inoue) to raise money. When he finds out the whole event is fixed, Mike quits in disgust and fights Augusto in the foyer as the slick champ (who has agreed to take a dive in the ring) tries to stop Mike blowing the whistle to the media. The final punch-up (the only major slugfest in the movie) evokes the outside-the-arena street brawl which climaxed Rocky V, and needs to be more impressive than it is – Mamet gets too close to the grunting grapplers for us to appreciate their skills, there’s only one amazing move (a walking-up-the-wall bit) and the stakes aren’t all that clear (though the victor is awarded two different belts of honour). Mamet pulls melodrama tricks (the sudden honourable but inconvenient suicide of a supporting character, a major betrayal by someone the hero ought to be able to count on) most other writers couldn’t get away with – he also blends the kind of bluntness (the colour-coded surnames of many characters) found in proper kung fu pictures with a dowdy, unshowy would-be realistic Los Angeles and infodump footnotes on macho trivia like why combat troops write their platoon number in biro on their boots and how to best an assailant who has a knife to your throat.