For a long stretch, “Redbelt” (2008) employs Chiwetel Ejiofor and a stellar cast doing strong work in service to a story that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. But writer-director David Mamet is planting seeds for a stronger back half where most of it comes together in an unusual mix of Mametian con-job plot and martial-arts fight film. The finished product is still a bizarre blend that makes me question if it’s worth the 1 hour and 40 minutes, but Ejiofor – as big-city jujitsu instructor Mike Terry – ultimately shapes “Redbelt” into a fable about finding a way out of the direst circumstances through sheer training and skill.
Phil Spector” (2013), the last film from writer-director David Mamet before what has become the longest filmmaking hiatus of his career, manages to be a compelling murder-trial biopic without digging as far into the case as one would assume. Mamet focuses on building a character portrait of legendary music producer Phil Spector (Al Pacino), someone who is brilliant, strange, mostly off-putting, occasionally terrifying, occasionally kind, and possibly murderous.
William H. Macy gives the most daring and possibly best performance of his career in “Edmond” (2005), David Mamet’s adaptation of his own play, directed by Stuart Gordon. Set in New York City, the film hooked me immediately by starting off like a darker “Office Space,” as Macy’s dead-eyed title character stumbles out of an indeterminate white-collar job he hates, has a fortune teller inform him he’s living the wrong life, and goes home and breaks up with his wife (Rebecca Pidgeon), noting that he hasn’t been happy in the marriage in years.
Writer David Mamet – with Barry Levinson directing – switches his focus from the small cons of “House of Games” and the like to the global con of “Wag the Dog” (1997), a delightful and sometimes hilariously absurd examination of the cover-up of a presidential scandal. It’s also harrowing enough now and then to be more than a straight-up comedy. Savvy followers of the news cycle know the adage: If a huge story breaks, look at what the previous big story was and ask if the new one has been manufactured as a distraction.
Iwouldn’t mind looking at a series of still photos from “The Untouchables” (1987) or listening to the genre-hopping score by Ennio Morricone. But when watching the film, I kept expecting character depth or layers of insight into alcohol Prohibition and the government-versus-mob battles, and these things never emerge. There are occasional lines with a David Mamet flavor (“Yes, surprise is half the battle. A lot of things are half the battle. Losing is half the battle”), but his screenplay doesn’t take the reins of “The Untouchables,” and the film doesn’t rise above something that looks gorgeous and sounds pretty.
With his directorial follow-up to his noteworthy debut “House of Games,” David Mamet takes a step back with “Things Change” (1988). It does have twists that made me sit up and take notice in the final moments. But it’s short on memorable Mamet-speak, and it doesn’t illustrate the contrast between sweet-natured shoe-shiner Gino (Don Ameche) and low-on-the-totem-pole gangster Jerry (Joe Mantegna) as crisply as I would’ve liked.
Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992) has an absurdly stacked roster of talent – all men, because only men work at this particular real-estate office, which I suppose was common at the time – and all in service of a searing yet hilarious portrayal of the games these salesmen play to get ahead. Written by David Mamet (from his play) and directed by James Foley, the film features a Jack Lemmon portrayal so iconic that an entire “Simpsons” character, Gil Gunderson, is based on him.
Spartan” (2004) lacks the usual crisp screenplay of David Mamet, who also directs, but its lack of laser-focus might be part of the point here. The film doesn’t announce its thesis statement right away, and because of that, it’s able to deliver late-film surprises not only in terms of plot and character motivations, but also in regard to the whole point of the film.
Heist” (2001) had the misfortune of being a crime film – and one with an airplane heist in its plot — coming out in the wake of 9/11. But hopefully this commercial flop has become at least a cult classic, because it’s a brilliant examination of honor – and dishonor – among thieves, featuring writer-director David Mamet’s usual intricate plotting but adding in memorable, fleshed-out characters.
With “State and Main” (2000), writer-director David Mamet delivers a satirical look at the making of a Hollywood movie, but it’s so lighthearted that it’s almost a love letter, too. The setting is incongruous with the absurd industry politics on display, as director Walt Price (William H. Macy) is shooting a historical film called “The Old Mill” in picturesque Waterford, Vermont, filled with locals with quirks of their own.