Dir: David Mamet. US-Ger. 2004. 106 mins
Most would agree that David Mamet is a brilliant playwright and screenwriter, and a more than competent director, but he seems to have checked all his talent at the door when he came to make Spartan, a lame thriller that never for a moment thrills. The trademark Mamet dialogue, in which banal phrases are repeated in a purposely artificial way, comes across here merely as banal and artificial, rather than hauntingly stylised as in other films like The Spanish Prisoner.
His nuanced and critical probing of male culture accomplished so successfully in a film like Glengarry Glen Ross, which, significantly, began life as a play, now yields to a cliched celebration of macho bravado and techno-militarism. Perhaps he feels that this is what general audiences want and, with a vengeance, aims to give it to them. Alas, he doesn't do macho bravado and techno-militarism very well, and the film feels awkward and unconvincing from beginning to end. General audiences won't, in fact, find the film the slightest bit involving, and there's little for specialised art-film audiences either.
Secret Service agent Robert Scott (Kilmer) is an effective operative, if a bit of a loose cannon. When it appears that a white-slavery ring has kidnapped a young woman (Bell) who, unbeknownst to them, is the daughter of the president of the United States, Scott and his sidekick Curtis (Luke) are called upon to find her before the ravenous press discovers she's missing. In the middle of their investigation, the news breaks that her body has been found along with that of her philandering college teacher, both victims of a sailing accident.
Not so fast, thinks Curtis, and he talks Scott into undertaking a rogue search-and-rescue mission for the girl in a brothel in Dubai. All the president's men, however, intent on their man's re-election, have different plans for the girl and Scott must contend with the whole apparatus of the state, most notably in the person of Stoddard (Macy), ranged powerfully against him.
As this summary should indicate, Mamet's plot is full of holes and dangerously uneven. Improbably, Scott murders other policemen and roughs up women suspects with impunity. Even worse, the fight choreography in which these beatings are staged is clumsy and inadequate. Coincidences abound, situations are left unresolved, and more than a few characters are preposterous.
All the white cop/black cop buddy movie cliches are scrupulously adhered to, and one-liners obviously meant to be snappy fall flat. The most obvious of plot points are laboriously explained, and the famous Mamet plot twists can be seen coming from a distance and not worth it when they arrive.
Occasionally, the lighting and purposely artificial postures of the actors can be striking, but since virtually the entire movie takes place in the dark (accompanied by the most mournful of music), viewers will quickly enough begin to feel like bats living in caves. The end brings some welcome cynicism about the corrupt political uses that old bugaboo "terrorism" has been put to in recent years, but it's way too little and too late.
Prod cos: Franchise Pictures, Apollo Media, Signature Pictures, Quality Intl
US dist: Warner Bros
Int'l dist: Warner Bros
Exec prods: James A. Holt, Frank Hubner
Prods: David Bergstein, Moshe Diamant
Scr: David Mamet
Cine: Juan Ruiz Anchia
Ed: Barbara Tulliver
Prod des: Gemma Jackson
Music: Mark Isham
Main cast: Val Kilmer, William H Macy, Derek Luke, Kristen Bell