December 20, 2003
“Where is the girl?” This oft-repeated line lies at the centre of Spartan (2004), a political thriller from writer-director David Mamet. At the heart of this film is a mystery, one that the central character must solve and, in doing so, discover something about himself. Known mainly for his award winning stage plays (Glengarry Glen Ross) and high profile Hollywood screenwriting gigs (The Untouchables), Mamet has, over the years, directed several movies (House of Games, Homicide, etc). For the most part they’ve been nothing to write home about stylistically, but with Heist (2001), and now with Spartan, Mamet is showing a growing proficiency behind the camera.
When the daughter (Bell) of the President of the United States goes missing, the Secret Service brings in Robert Scott (Kilmer) to investigate. He is one of those shadowy operatives with no name (of consequence) that does all of the government’s dirty business under the veil of secrecy and plausible deniability. He is assigned a young, inexperienced partner named Curtis (Luke). They have very little time before the media gets wind of what has happened. The two men go undercover and trace the young girl’s whereabouts to an international prostitution ring. This is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg as Scott becomes immersed in a world of intrigue and rampant duplicity.
Scott is a typical Mamet protagonist in that he wastes few words and everything he says has meaning. Val Kilmer is a perfect fit for Mamet’s tough, no-nonsense world. He does a good job with Mamet’s tricky, distinctive dialogue. Much like Gene Hackman’s character in Heist, Kilmer’s Scott is efficient and ruthless in his methods because time is of the essence and his way gets results. Kilmer has always been known as an intelligent actor (even if some of his choices of projects have not) and in Spartan he gets to plays a very smart man. Mamet often shows Scott thinking, contemplating his next move and his methods in getting the information he needs are also clever and resourceful.
Spartan is full of Mamet’s trademark biting wit. When Curtis tries to get chummy with Scott, he quickly rebuffs the young recruit by saying, “If I want comraderie, I’ll join the Masons.” Or, when Scott and Curtis share a little down-time after an assignment ends, the older man playfully chides the other, “What’s the matter? You got post-traumatic stress disorder? I hear they say there might be environmental causes.” Mamet may be all business but he isn’t afraid to sneak in the occasional hard-boiled quip to lighten the mood somewhat.
In a nice touch, Mamet regulars Ed O’Neill (The Spanish Prisoner) and William H. Macy (Oleanna) are along for the ride as a strictly business government type and a mysterious operative, respectively.
On paper, the film’s story is a conventional one—it belongs to the action-thriller genres—but Mamet flips all of the clichés and stereotypes on their head with his unconventional dialogue and characterization. Every bit of dialogue and every action are important. This requires the utmost level of attention from the audience because if you miss something, the film does not slow down and allow you to catch up.
Mamet is a breath of fresh air in this politically correct climate in that he never sentimentalizes his characters or their situations. Even when Curtis is grievously wounded and Scott talks to him, there is no tearful reconciliation; just a stoic reassurance from the veteran operative. Spartan remains true to this attitude right down the line to its satisfying conclusion.
There is a delightfully eccentric audio commentary by actor Val Kilmer. He briefly recounts how he got the role and also describes Mamet’s mind as “very eclectic and complicated and interesting.” Kilmer could easily be describing his own brain—it is no wonder they got along so well. For every interesting factoid (he talks about all the training and preparation he did for the role), he drops surreal observations such as this, “If you’re listening to this and watching the film for the first time…You’re really strange.” Imagine hearing that in Kilmer’s trademark cadences and you get an idea of what a surprising treat it is listening to this track. While, there are quite a few lulls in the actor’s commentary, there are enough bizarro gems from him to make it worth sitting through the dry spots.
There is also a theatrical trailer.
The attitude of Kilmer’s character in Spartan reflects that of the movie itself—all business. Mamet’s film is a sleek, professional political thriller that was unfairly ignored by audiences and snubbed by many critics. Perhaps it was his not so thinly-veiled critique of the Presidency or the highly stylized prose that scared off mainstream audiences. Regardless, Spartan is a top notch thriller that is exciting as it is intelligent.