Judge Mike Pinsky. Reviewing Mamet's latest. Good. Very good. The review, at least. And the film. Maybe the film. Sure.
"I don't know what you are. You ain't a planner. You're a shooter. I don't know what you are doing here, and I think you're off the reservation."—Avi (Moshe Ivgy)
Robert Scott (Val Kilmer) is a tough son of a bitch. He is a trained killer for the U.S. government, good enough to train soldiers, cold enough not to care who they are once the mission is over. When the daughter of an important official disappears, Scott is the man they call to get her back. His investigation leads through a twisted path to a sex-slavery ring in Dubai. Has some foolish crook kidnapped Laura Newton (Kristen Bell), not knowing who she is? Scott puts down the bad guys, not thinking much about the mystery, just racing to get the girl back before she gets shipped out of the country.
Until Laura's body turns up somewhere else, drowned. So who got kidnapped? Why is Scott getting the runaround from his own people? Why is the audience so confused?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines "Spartan" as "characteristic or typical of Sparta, its inhabitants, or their customs; esp. distinguished by simplicity, frugality, courage, or brevity of speech." Sparta was, as you know, a military state, so to be "Spartan" is to adhere to a code of military discipline. But it has also become an aesthetic qualification: stripped down, spare, coldly simple.
David Mamet is known for the Spartan dialogue of his plays and screenplays. Characters speak in clipped, often brusque fashion. It is not meant to be natural: Mamet is concerned with the rhythms of speech as much as its meaning. Indeed, most of his plays are about communication—or more accurately, miscommunication: relationships in Sexual Perversity in Chicago; salesmanship in Glengarry Glen Ross, Hollywood banter in Speed the Plow. Between stagework, Mamet pens screenplays, either for Hollywood studio projects or for himself. His own directorial efforts focus on shifty game players trying to outwit one another, while the usually baffled audience is along for the ride. Sometimes it works, as in House of Games or Homicide, where the characters are intriguing enough to keep the audience connected to the story while the puzzle unfolds. And sometimes, it all becomes more of an exercise in style.
One of the frustrating aspects of Spartan is its sense of self-importance. Mamet's screenplay stubbornly provides no exposition or character development. Like Mamet's play (and film) Oleanna (where the central miscommunication is over sexual harassment), the characters and situations are abstracted to the edge of recognizability. We do not know who Laura Newton's father is or what agency Scott works for. Characters talk at cross-purposes; in fragments, as if we should already know what they mean. Like most Mamet films, Spartan takes a second viewing just to have enough context to understand the dialogue.
The dry tone makes this seem like a serious thriller, but when you step back from the film, things do not look so rosy. Val Kilmer draws on everything he has to play the slippery Scott. Accessible one moment, icy and brutal the next, Scott is supposed to be an efficient killer. Yet, his sudden change of heart late in the film is hard to fathom, since we do not have enough of a handle on the character to empathize with him. As for the plot, it looks like a tough-minded political tale: Mamet does an action movie. But on second viewing, plot holes begin to wear at the audience's nerves. In short, Laura sneaks away from her Secret Service coverage to work as a prostitute (!), gets abducted by Arab sex slavers, and…
Is this all meant to be obtuse? Is this what Mamet understands studio-friendly thrillers to be, or is this a bone-dry parody? Are we supposed to sympathize with Scott, or are the characters drawn so thinly on purpose? Mamet does throw in some interesting individual sequences—Scott must break a criminal out of prison in order to trick him into revealing Laura's whereabouts, Scott and Mamet regular William H. Macy have a shootout in an airport hanger—all competently, if not energetically, directed. Mamet's staccato dialogue always sounds as if it is about something, so at least that keeps the audience hanging around hoping for the mystery to get cleared up. And Mamet does throw in one expository scene with a sympathetic Secret Service agent to explain enough of the plot to jumpstart the film's final act.
Watching the vertiginous plot of Spartan reminds me of watching Kiefer Sutherland chasing the bad guys in 24. I can see Warner Bros. salivating at the prospect of a 24-style movie, with a ruthless but secretly sensitive government agent on a twisty case, with a script by the vaunted David Mamet. Indeed, Spartan seems to have all the elements of that Fox show. Our hero cares, but he has no problem arbitrarily killing witnesses as part of his makeshift schemes. When he does not kill them, the bad guys die anyway, just at the right moment to give the hero only one clue—that leads him to another villain, who dies before giving one clue (this process my wife and I call "Bauering," after Sutherland's character). His teammates have a habit of dying, and he fights on wounded to save the day. Of course, he must go rogue, since his own people will betray him, thinking they are doing the right thing. And for all the attention to "technically-accurate" dialogue, the story only really shines when everyone pulls out their guns in the last act and start blasting away.
Do you get the impression that Spartan is dressing up a formula thriller in flashy clothing? Even Val Kilmer has a hard time taking this seriously on his solo commentary track. In dry and laconic fashion, he points out fake continuity errors, mockingly complains about Mamet's dictatorial behavior and hypocrisy, and plays off his own much-storied egotism. It might have helped if Warner put somebody else in the room with Kilmer for him to joke with, since the commentary tends to drag from the silences between the snarky comments.
Although it has a fine cast and usually able writer-director behind the helm, Spartan is not much more than a serviceable Hollywood thriller with a fancy pedigree. It does not rank with Mamet's better efforts, but it might make a solid rental. Just do not take it too seriously.
You want a judgment? F-k you. That's my message to you: f-k you and David Mamet can kiss my a-s. Dismiss this case, baby. Period.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary by Actor Val Kilmer
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