What is the man behind such parlor-room films as The Winslow Boy and House of Games doing directing an explosive military thriller, complete with airdrops and sniper rifles? And starring Val Kilmer? Trust me: Give Spartan ten minutes, and you'll stop asking such stupid questions.
David Mamet's latest project is far from conventional fare, and ultimately that works in his favor. From the opening scene, where two soldiers pursue each other through a jungle, Mamet keeps us guessing. What kind of movie are we watching? Within about 10 minutes, the bones of the story are made clear: the president's daughter (Kristen Bell) has been kidnapped from her dorm room, and the Secret Service pulls out all the stops to get her back. That includes recruiting special operations soldier Robert Scott (Val Kilmer), an uncannily capable military man who's as intuitive with people and motives as he is skilled with weapons.
Mamet then shows us the blinding speed with which covert military forces can launch into operation. It soon becomes apparent that the girl was sold into slavery... and she's somewhere "in the pipeline" to the Middle East. Or is she? Before the end we'll scour the world with Scott in order to hunt down the truth.
Mamet throws out more jargon than Tom Clancy and never gives us a chance to catch our breath. And the twists and turns come at us rapid-fire, including a couple of biggies that hit like a ton of bricks. This is a director that knows there are no sacred cows in the best thrillers. Ultimately, Mamet's skill with psychological mysteries pays off big time; though the setting is military, in the end Spartan plays out like a classic mind game, and an awfully good one at that.
Against all odds it's Kilmer that totally owns the show here. Now in his forties, he's got a grizzled and weather-beaten look that works to his advantage in this role. Kilmer does away with Mamet's trademark cadence - though most of the other players adhere to it - instead crafting a chameleon-like persona that keeps us guessing about what kind of guy he really is. Getting inside Scott's head is as much fun as unraveling the mystery of the plot.
Supporting players are the movie's sole weakness. Derek Luke, forgettable in the title role of Antwone Fisher, makes a bit of an impression here as Scott's greenhorn protégé, and Tia Texada is creepily hard to watch as another earnest marine on the case. A cadre of Mamet regulars also make unmemorable appearances, but it's William H. Macy who is most miscast as a hard-nosed agent.
In the wrong hands, a film like Spartan (the title, by the way, is made clear at the end) could have been an utter disaster - as similar movies like The General's Daughter, The Hunted, and Basic have proven all too well. Sweep them under the rug and we can start again, as long as the world gives Mamet all the military- and spy-themed movies from here on out.
Val Kilmer's interesting and jokey commentary track makes for a valuable DVD extra, though the disc is thin on additional materials.
Anyone see a girl in here?