David Mamet, a prolific writer whose stock in trade has been adapting his
stage work to the screen, directed his first movie in 1987 ("House of Games").
His writing and directing efforts achieved a high (arguably) with "The Spanish
Prisoner" in 1997 and, a low (also arguably) with "State and Main" in 2000, a
misfire in terms of character sympathy. His clipped, minimal dialogue comes
from a very original voice, but it's one that can be found irritating,
confusing and artificial. They're like verbal bullets trying to draw blood.
The danger in it is in its artful artificiality and it's probably safe to say
there's a limited audience for it. Eggheads, fans of legitimate theatre,
academics are likely to be counted among those who line up for his
"Spartan," a zesty and muscular thriller that he weaves out of the mythological
exploits of special forces and clandestine law enforcement agencies (which
may not exist), is commercial, intense, ruthlessly violent and energetically
dramatic. That's if you can get past Mamet's style of dialogue distillation.
His people talk funny, when they're inclined to talk at all. The interesting
part is that when they do utter their spare dialogue, it's often with the
power of understatement, when the writer finds the bare essentials of the
scene or the Mamet statement. And, sometimes, he doesn't find the
explosively telling line and the level of confusion is nothing short of
baffling. Throughout the first 10-15 minutes of the film my thought was,
"there's a whole lot of mystery going on." And most of it was in the
difficulty to figure out the characters and how they fit into a story scheme.
Finally, it sorts itself out and we find ourselves in a president's daughter
kidnapping straight out of the recent annals of West Wing (for those who
don't watch TV, a highly successful political drama on NBC). But, Mamet sees
in this generic outline an opportunity to introduce carnality, debasement and
a low level of immorality. This president's daughter, Laura Newton (Kristen
Bell), is the victim of the president himself, a man so determined to obtain
sexual gratification that he "borrowed" her secret service detail in order to
arrange a private liaison and made possible her abduction from her dorm room.
The man's a snake.
The special operations military officers whose job it is to find the girl
quickly realize that the kidnappers took the girl in order to make her a sex
slave in a middle east brothel because they think she's a blond. Special
agent Scott (Val Kilmer), his superiors and white house protector Burch (Ed
O'Neill) know that if these worms discover her true identity and her value as
a hostage, well... it's just the highest possible priority to extract her
from their clutches. When the attempts to do that go awry, the president's
team covers up the danger by faking her death in a drowning accident.
Scott (Val Kilmer) is the ace operative with the fewest words and the highest
dedication to his job. He's so good at what he does, he trains people. He's
also a man of the fewest possible attachments, a requirement for the heroic
soldier working in the emotional vacuum of the clandestine world. Jackie
Black (Tia Texada) is one of his loyal team members; Curtis (Derek Luke) is
his latest recruit. When Scott is charged with tracking her down, Curtis is
at his back. When the trail leads to Dubai and Jackie pleads to go there on
his plane, Scott won't have it. But, charged by Burch to "go off the meter"
(Mametspeak) and get the girl at any cost, his final play is in Dubai.
Performances are all spit and polish, clipped, intense, charged up. Kilmer,
who plays the central focus of the film, smolders with conviction in pursuing
justice. His focused concentration on his character's personal ethic in the
secretive world of high-stakes crime is finely tuned and magnetic.
The story is full of operatives of all shades and persuasions while emotions
are held in tight control. This is an effective action entry, taut and
engaging in a male sense, creating atmosphere designed to hold military
thriller fans in its high concept, muscular grasp.
~~ Jules Brenner