Redbelt Almost Makes a Moviegoer's Dream Come True

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I began going to movies in 1967, when my parents took me to see Disney's oh-so-faithful adaptation of The Jungle Book (I'm sure Rudyard Kipling would have loved the voice work of Phil Harris, who portrayed Baloo the bear as a perpetually dazed hippie/slacker). And while I've always loved the communal part of the moviegoing experience, I've also imagined my party being the only one in the theater, à la Hollywood big shots in a private screening room. Despite more than four decades of checking out oddball films at unusual times, this dream has never quite been realized. But on the afternoon of May 17, while eyeballing the new David Mamet film Redbelt, I came tantalizingly, frustratingly close.

My wife, son and I arrived at the Regal Denver West theater complex, in the Denver West shopping center, within a minute or so of the scheduled 5:05 p.m. start in an effort to avoid as much as possible of the irritating pre-show "infotainment" package assembled by National CineMedia, a firm profiled in a July 2007 Message column. Our timing was perfect. Not only did the first preview start as we were settling into our seats, but the theater itself was totally deserted -- and it stayed that way for a long, long time. At one point, a theater employee bumbled in, talking to herself as she waved a glowing red wand -- sort of like a light saber in need of a miracle enlargement cure. Then, when she realized she wasn't alone, she lip-zipped herself so quickly that she nearly swallowed her tongue.

This incident added to the enjoyment of the experience, and so, in a modest way, did the film itself, which is dying at the box office; Variety reports that it earned just $98,000 on 932 screens the weekend we attended. Like the other entries on Mamet's directorial résumé, Redbelt is something of a curio, albeit a highly individual one. This story of a martial-arts instructor trying desperately to maintain the purity of his discipline in a thoroughly compromised world is self-consciously contrived and artificial, with Mamet's trademark staccato dialogue only adding to the unreality of the enterprise. Yet Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the protagonist, is excellent as always, and the other actors revel in the opportunity to enter Mamet's highly stylzed world -- even comedian Tim Allen, who offers the sort of image-redefining performance the playwright-turned-director drew from Steve Martin in 1997's The Spanish Prisoner. The morally triumphant ending seems forced, particularly by Mamet's standards, but the film as a whole proves to be strangely satisfying, if fairly minor.

What wasn't satisfying, though, was the intrusion, more than an hour into the film, of another couple, who stumbled noisily into the theater as if expecting that their entrance would let a waitress know they wanted a couple of tall ones. What were they doing there? And why show up for the last twenty minutes of a movie? Had they grown dissatisfied with some other flick showing at the complex and gone out in search of something better? Or were they simply killing the day by dropping in and out of as many theaters as possible until the drugs wore off? I have no idea -- but I do know that the private-screening feeling I'd been enjoying so much evaporated in an instant.

Someday, damn it, I'll be able to see a movie in a multiplex with no one but my loved ones. And I'm not going to stop going until I do. -- Michael Roberts

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