Spartan Movie Review

David Mamet's "Spartan" is Tom Clancy without the pop-literature pretense. It's "24" for those who like more of a cerebral challenge -- a tense, tightly paced political action-thriller with provocatively elusive twists that don't feel contrived for shock value.

It's a movie in which intellect trumps exposition to the point that most of the characters aren't clearly identified, making all of them seem more shadowy and dangerous. The story counts on your ability to think for yourself and draw your own conclusions about evidence trails, incidents, alibis, motives and intentions -- then pulls those conclusions out from under you more than once with substantial surprises that make you think even harder. And it has a palpable atmosphere of pressure-cooker urgency, kept doggedly in check by government agents for whom eye-on-the-prize callousness is compulsory.

Val Kilmer stars as a terse military espionage operative called in by the Secret Service to work with a clandestine team searching for a missing -- likely abducted -- First Daughter before the headline-hungry press gets wind of the notoriously rebellious girl's disappearance.

When Kilmer arrives at the realistically makeshift, no-frills command center set up in the bowels of the football stadium on her college campus, half a dozen juicy, possibly conspiratorial leads are already being followed, based on information about a fight with her boyfriend, a missing professor she slept with, a nightclub that may be connected to a sex slave ring, calls made from a federal prison to a phone booth near her dorm, and a Secret Service minder who abandoned his post -- and kills himself before anyone can get a straight answer out of him.

All that, and Mamet is just getting warmed up. Cover-ups, decoys and political motivations confound the investigation, and seemingly major characters get killed without warning -- and with the clock ticking, Kilmer begins taking risks and making educated guesses hoping to get a step ahead of whoever is responsible for the girl's vanishing act.

"Spartan" has a disquieting sense of black-ops authenticity. Kilmer will do anything -- legal, illegal, moral, immoral -- to save the girl. There are no Boy Scout heroes here and writer-director Mamet makes no apologies for it. The mission gets messy, some game plans go hideously wrong, trickles of new information send the Secret Service in unexpected directions, and one bombshell halts the investigation in its tracks.

But then Kilmer's protégé -- a indomitable Army Ranger played with youthful pluck by Derek Luke ("Antwone Fisher") -- uncovers a double-cross that leads the two men to disobey orders and launch a rogue international rescue operation fueled by personal integrity that depends on outsiders and backfires in ominous ways.

At it's heart, "Spartan" is a popcorn-conventional conspiracy seat-gripper, but Mamet's intellectual fingerprints (if not his trademark clipped dialogue patterns) are all over the film as he drops you deep into the fray, providing character detail only on a need-to-know basis. Kilmer's character is clearly a venerated agent, but you never really know how high he ranks in whatever branch of the service he works for. William H. Macy and Ed O'Neill give unnerving supporting performances as powerful higher-ups -- from the CIA and White House, it's implied.

The film is so intriguingly nebulous, in fact, that no one ever even utters the words "first daughter" or "president." In the espionage underworld much is inferred but never spoken, and being kept in the dark in many ways heightens the pins-and-needles tension to subtle yet significant degrees.

But it seems Mamet painted himself into a corner with all his bombshell developments because he has to slip through a handful of large plot loopholes in order to bring the sharp but spiraling story together in the last 10 minutes -- not the least of which is the incredibly lucky coincidence of a TV news crew being present for the climax in a private airport hanger.

A few other such problems arise in the film's finale, and one pivotal character is revealed to be a cynical bit of stereotyping -- such a disappointment in a Mamet film. But at worst these developments bring "Spartan" down only to the simpler level of what we're used to seeing when Hollywood tackles political intrigue.

This ending still isn't Tom Clancy (not Boy Scout enough) or "24" (it lacks the often preposterous cheese factor of that real-time counter-terrorism thriller on Fox), but it's a bit of a pedestrian comedown for a movie that otherwise turns its conventions on their ears.


Comments

Spartan Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, WIDE: Friday, March 12, 2004

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