David Mamet Puts Himself in a Headlock

With his 10th feature—an entertaining tale of high-stakes martial arts—David Mamet has infused his trademark sleight of hand with a measure of two-fisted action. Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an exponent of Brazilian jujitsu, teaches his prize pupil how to fight with one hand bound: "There is no situation from which you cannot escape." That the instructor's pedagogical style is a nonstop torrent of hectoring advice mixed with color commentary suggests the filmmaker's own faith in the power of language. Still, as played by Ejiofor, Mike is almost sweet—a natural victim. When Mike visits his brother-in-law's bar, he finds himself intervening in a fight to protect a big-time movie star (Tim Allen). Mike is subsequently invited to the set of the star's new movie, and somehow the filmmakers start to consider bringing him on as an executive producer. But is this all a plot to force the honest samurai—who has hitherto been too pure to fight competitively—into the ring? Like the left-wing, largely Jewish writers of the '30s and '40s, Mamet identifies with the situation of a solitary fighter trapped by a corrupt system. In his case, however, the system isn't capitalism so much as show business. Therein lies a paradox—Mamet attacks showbiz while surrendering to it. The tenets of jujitsu may argue there's no trap that cannot be escaped, but the rules of American entertainment insist on it.

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