Director : David Mamet
Screenplay : David Mamet
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Val Kilmer (Robert Scott), Derek Luke (Curtis), Kristen Bell (Laura Newton), William H. Macy (Stoddard), Ed O'Neill (Burch), Tia Texada (Jackie Black)
In Spartan, David Mamet takes his signature elliptical approach to the well-worn Tom Clancy-ish spy genre, deflating it of its emphasis on straightforward plot-point-to-plot-point narrative structure and refilling it with a politically charged undercurrent that’s all too timely. As with so many of his previous films, Mamet is infinitely less interested in exactly what happens (although plenty happens) than he is in how his characters react and deal with the situations. After all, Spartan is a movie that centers around a kidnapping, and we don’t find out exactly who was kidnapped until well into the story.
Val Kilmer, in an effectively stoic, stone-faced performance, stars as Robert Scott, a Ranger in a super secret special ops unit, another in Mamet’s long line of hardened pros whose lives and ethics are defined by the intricacies of their professions. Scott is a no-nonsense veteran, and he is contrasted against two rookies, Curtis (Derek Luke) and Jackie Black (Tia Texada), whom he is training in a field exercise in the film’s opening sequence. Both Curtis and Jackie still have vestiges of idealism—of going above and beyond the call of duty—while Scott has long since learned to stick to his orders and do what he’s told. As he says himself numerous times, he’s just a worker bee.
Unfortunately, Scott is a worker bee in a deeply corrupt hive, and the film’s emotional lynchpin is his eventual decision to buck the system and do what’s right, rather than what he’s told. In this sense, he becomes the modern embodiment of the ancient titular warrior, sent alone on a secret mission deep into enemy territory. In this case, though, the enemy turns out to be the higher-ups in his own government, which one can easily read as a thinly veiled stand-in for the current Bush administration.
The plot centers around the kidnapping of the President’s daughter, Laura Newton (Kristen Bell), and Scott’s mission to find her and return her safely. As with all good spy yarns, this initial incident leads to a tangled web of discoveries, including a white slave trading operation out of Yemen and a thoroughly disgusting abuse of power in the name of both national security and personal indulgence. To put a spin on the old cliché, everything is not what it seems, although those viewers who hold the Bush Administration and its policy of subverting all other priorities to “the war on terror” will see Mamet’s underlying structure in crystal-clear terms. Mamet never makes this connection absolute, but it’s hard not to see it in moments like William H. Macy’s preserve-the-status-quo-at-any-cost White House operative defending his otherwise indefensible actions by hyperbolically declaring, “It’s World War III out there!”
Even without its bravely subversive political ideology (note how Warner Bros. dropped this movie into theaters with barely a sound, perhaps hoping nobody would notice it), Spartan works quite beautifully on the purely thriller level, albeit only for those audience members willing to do a little work. Mamet’s signature terse, staccato dialogue gives the movie a jolt of bracing authenticity; never does the dialogue deliver crucial plot points in ham-handed fashion. Rather, Mamet likes to drop us into the middle of scenes with little or no prior information about what is going on, thus forcing us to assemble the bits and pieces ourselves, which makes for a significantly more rewarding climax when it all comes together in an airport hanger in Yemen. Mamet delivers the requisite gunfights and derring-do escapes, but because it’s all so firmly entrenched in something more than a rote spy yarn, otherwise routine actions take on a greater significance and, for lack of a better word, simply have more oomph. This is a spy thriller with genuine weight.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images Copyright ©2004 Warner Bros. Pictures Inc.