The bear is the star of “The Edge” (1997). In one of the last great adventure movies to feature live bear action (today, it would be entirely created in a computer), the stunt bear, named Bart, fills the frame with menace. The practical and CGI effects teams also do impeccable work, and it’s edited into seamless and tense bear attacks. I don’t mean to denigrate Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin in the main human roles, but rather to emphasize how good the bear stuff is, even two decades later.
Following two escaped convicts who take cover as “priests” in a small American town along the Canadian border in the 1930s, “We’re No Angels” (1989) doesn’t have the biggest hook among David Mamet’s writing resume. But because the premise is so straightforward, it stands as a stark example of his sharp situational plotting skills. Over the course of 106 minutes, Neddy/“Father Riley” (Robert De Niro) and Jimmy/“Father Brown” (Sean Penn) nearly get caught several times, but always get out of their scrapes thanks to humorous random chance.
You won’t find “Ronin” (1998) if you type “David Mamet” into your streaming device’s search function, since he used the pseudonym Richard Weisz. But when you watch the film, you know it’s a Mamet screenplay. This movie reminds me of “Heist” (2001) in that it shows a lot of details about how a theft is planned and executed, yet it’s primarily concerned with the thieves as people – and those people spout witticisms about the meaning of life even within tense sequences.
David Mamet’s screenplays are among the most accessible in cinema because he writes – and his actors speak – in a heightened, rhythmic way that’s a pleasure to listen to even as it still feels natural. His dialog in “Chicago” (2018), his fourth novel but first of this millennium, is challenging because his characters talk in a 1920s Windy City fashion that has no rhythm and initially presents a stumbling block. I stuck with the book, though, and I’m glad I did because this is ultimately a horrifying and fascinating portrayal of the ins and outs of merchant-city corruption that sticks with a reader.
In the third film where he handles directing duties along with writing the screenplay, David Mamet strips away all but the blackest of humor for one of his bleakest tales, “Homicide” (1991). I found this film admirable and engaging without actually ever liking it all that much. The main reason I couldn’t turn away was because I didn’t know where it was going. With its title, I assumed it would be a cop-and-courts drama, but it has no courtroom component, and even though Joe Mantegna’s Bobby Gold is a homicide detective, it’s not quite a police procedural.
The Verdict” (1982) is most known for the engrossing turn by Paul Newman as a down-and-out lawyer who gets obsessed with one case, but it’s also the pinnacle of the courtroom drama form under the eye of legendary director Sidney Lumet (“12 Angry Men”) and an early example of David Mamet’s chug-along writing. While the film – rightly nominated for a Best Picture Oscar – is more than 2 hours long (a rare exception to Mamet’s 100-minute standard), it’s not boring for a second, and it’s worth that extra time as Lumet lets us soak up the details of Boston and the trappings of Frank Galvin’s dreary office and the grand courtroom.
With “The Winslow Boy” (1999), writer-director David Mamet is as much using his name recognition as he is using his skill to bring an important story to the public’s attention. Based on a real legal case, the film is adapted from Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play, which was made into a film two years later, co-written by Rattigan. The 1948 film rates a few percentage points higher (7.7 to 7.4) on IMDB than Mamet’s version. Yet this adaptation is important because it brings a crucial story to a wider audience, and it’s also impeccably directed in Mamet’s no-moment-wasted 105-minute style without sacrificing any turn-of-the-20th-century British affectations.
Lakeboat” (2000) is an odd duck among David Mamet’s catalog. Written by Mamet based on his own play and directed by his friend Joe Mantegna, it came out at the height of his filmmaking powers, but it smacks of an unfinished, low-budget production. The trailer is sloppy, and the film is shot in 4:3 aspect ratio as if for television, even though it was not a TV release.
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.