I was very excited to see what writer-director David Mamet had in store for us in Redbelt, his first film to be released after he stopped being a brain-dead liberal. Would it be an impassioned defense of privatized health care? A serious look at the need to bomb all Arabs into the Stone Age to safeguard Israel's sovereignty? A cheeky drama about the need for more religion in the public sphere, enlivened by Mamet's characteristically foul language? Or maybe just some good old-fashioned gay bashing. None of the above, it turns out: the film is about a man struggling to retain his dignity in a hopelessly corrupt world, as other men prove to be bestial antagonists and women prove to be unreliable and unnecessary. If post-conservativing Mamet is going to look so much like pre-conservativing Mamet, I wonder if maybe he should just keep his pie hole shut.

Notwithstanding the easy fun to be had at the expense of famous people who have grown babbling and incoherent, what kind of film is this Redbelt? A successful one, unsurprisingly - Mamet-the-filmmaker being noted chiefly for the brutal impersonality of his style, and the entirely solid movies that this style produces, a terribly bad Mamet film would be just as unexpected as a flat-out masterpiece. He is a director like he is a writer: terse and efficient and to the point. The only difference is that his writing comes across therefore as a sweet, fresh breeze, while his movies come across as nothing more than damn fine.

(For a fun time, pick up his overreaching On Directing Film, a book started shortly after his second feature was produced. For every moment of sheer theoretical brilliance, there are two that raise the unavoidable impression that David Mamet just plain hates movies).

What is primarily interesting about Redbelt is that it is in every way that matters, a boxing noir from the late '40s. Oh, it's set in the '00s, and boxing is replaced by Brazilian jiu-jitsu (which is significantly more popular in the world of the film than the actual world), and it's kind of hard to imagine a studio film in those days being headlined by a non-white actor, especially one with such a WASP-unfriendly name like Chiwetel Ejiofor. But there's not one detail about the plot that couldn't have come from the mind of a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, not one beat that couldn't have been directed by John Huston or Jules Dassin or Sam Fuller in their grimy urban decay modes.

Without giving away too much of the story's twists (several of which leap from faulty plotting that can only be swallowed if we think of it as stylised in the noir fashion), Redbelt is about Mike Terry (Ejiofor, sporting a flawless American accent), a mixed martial arts instructor in south Los Angeles. The sphere of characters orbiting him almost requires a roadmap: his wife and business manager Sondra (Alice Braga) is the sister of Bruno Silva (Rodrigo Santoro), a bar-owner and small-time crook in bed with the corrupt fight promoter Marty Brown (Ricky Jay, noted sleight of hand expert and Mamet regular) to turn an upcoming prizefight into a cash cow. Closer to home, Mike spends most of his time working with police officer Joe Collins (Max Martini), the closest he has to a successor, when the extremely nervous pill popper Laura Black (Emily Mortimer) drops in, accidentally almost kills Joe with his own gun, and sets most of the film's action in motion. A little while later, Mike rescues noted action star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) in a bar fight, becomes best friends with Chet and his manager Jerry Weiss (Joe Mantegna), and sees his wife embark on a business venture with Zena Frank (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's wife). For almost all of the movie, none of these threads seem to intersect or move forward very much, until all of a sudden they're all connected in a very clear way, and since the chief delight of the film is watching these things come to light, it wouldn't do for me to keep talking about it.

Even without a clear-cut narrative of corruption and venality to tie all of these things together, however, it's clear at every turn that this is basically a story of Mike versus the world, and a very oily and insidious world at that. From seedy bar to crummy offices to movie sets, every place Mike goes in his journey is nasty and nastier, populated by people whose clear venality is obvious to everyone in the audience but largely ignored by the noble protagonist, who tries with varying success to force the world to fit into his extremely pleasing but utterly impractical "American Samurai" philosophy of honor and loyalty and truth. In other words, it's the classic tale of a noble Everyman plunged into the gross excesses of human vice in the dark places of the city, as told in countless movies made in the aftermath of World War II. It's a world well-suited to Mamet's take-no-prisoners frankness and barbed dialogue, even if the writer does dull much of the film's bite in an out of place and somewhat uncharacteristically sentimental ending.

The pleasure of Redbelt is essentially the pleasure of watching the '40s idiom transplanted into the modern day, made by skilled professionals delivering eminently serviceable work without distinction. I don't suppose a single member of the cast hasn't been better elsewhere, although every single one of them is good in their role; behind the camera, great craftsmen like cinematographer Robert Elswit and production designer David Wasco do fine work that will win them neither accolades nor awards. This is a David Mamet film to its bones, and that means everything is stripped down as far as it can be, to the point of being casually and unremarkably flawless. That said, the genre he is working in with this film is uniquely suited to this kind of treatment, and I don't suppose that this film could have been, or should have been, any better than it is.