Powers-that-be 

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Val Kilmer as military man Robert Scott in Spartan (courtesy photo)
David Mamet's mouthpieces get right to the meat

"One riot, one ranger," the saying goes. Rare is the crisis that one strong man can't fix. It's the kind of motto only an idealistic lawman or a diehard Gary Cooper fan could buy, and David Mamet inverts both of those attitudes for Spartan, which is deeply disillusioned with the powers-that-be and stages its final showdown at midnight instead of high noon.

The lone ranger here is Val Kilmer's Robert Scott, an ice-cold military man brought in by the Secret Service for a sensitive job. The daughter of a V.I.P. (the President, surely, though the script is deliberately vague) has been abducted, and he is to help rescue her before the media finds out or unknown forces make her safety irrelevant.

Scott has an advantage over most movie characters of his sort: His dialogue is written by David Mamet. So what comes out of his mouth is stringently macho to the core, as opposed to the nickel-plated trash talk of your average action hero. As he shepherds a young partner (Derek Luke) through a stakeout, his advice dispenses with preamble and explanation, getting right to the meat: "In the city, always a reflection; in the woods, always a sound."

Of course, everybody else's dialogue is Mametspeak too, which is a stumbling block for viewers who don't like to be reminded that the world they're watching was invented by an author. (Which is a bit like saying you would like Van Gogh's portraits better if only he had applied the paint a little more smoothly.) But the screenwriter's taciturn sensibility also translates to his plotting, which works especially well for a political thriller like this one. The film moves without wasted activity, even when its characters are pursuing red herrings, and feels charged throughout. Viewers who have seen the trailer will know the main plot twist, but there is nothing rote about the way the movie arrives there.

Spartan

Dir. & writ. David Mamet; feat. Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, William H. Macy, Ed O'Neill, Tia Texada, Kristen Bell, Clark Gregg (R)

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There are a few gaps in the storytelling, especially late in the film, that could be due to Mamet's elliptical style, but feel more like the result of studio-imposed cuts. One character in particular arrives out of nowhere for reasons that can only be guessed at, while another sets out on a course of action that has no obvious result. Still, the plot makes more sense than most good espionage/conspiracy thrillers are required to do. And it's sold by actors who understand the terrain. It says something for the level of the ensemble that here, Mamet-favorite William H. Macy is among the least compelling people onscreen. (Granted, his role isn't a plum one.)

Spartan plays to the darkest suspicions viewers may have about the nature of political power, but (while some early audiences have evidently seen it as anti-Bush) there is nothing specific about the allusions here. In fact, two scenes in particular (not to mention the title) tie the tale into the long history of kings, loyal soldiers, and calculated sacrifice. Corrupting power in general is what the movie and its "worker bee" hero come to challenge, and this smart, nervy battle is as gripping as the conflict is timeless. •


More by John DeFore

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