by Del Harvey
A “lone wolf” U.S. government secret agent, Bobby Scott (Val Kilmer), is assigned the task of rescuing the kidnapped daughter (Kristen Bell) of the president, only to discover along the way a larger, more sinister plot originating within the White House itself…
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David Mamet is well-known for dark dramas overflowing with men doing man’s work (Glengarry Glen Ross, Heist, Homicide). His portraits of women are sketches at best, and then best portrayed by his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon. Since she is missing altogether from this film, two young women attempt to fill in the soft charcoal drawing that composes a typical Mamet female: Kristen Bell as “the girl” everyone’s trying to find, and Tia Texada (Phone Booth) as Scott’s fellow Army Ranger. Neither one of them stands a chance in this film, which features more males than your standard issue Army platoon.
Kilmer is Bobby Scott, a U.S. Army Ranger who trains other Rangers and works Special Ops whenever he’s needed. He’s a rather 2-dimensional character, thanks in large part to Mamet’s writing; he knows when to turn off the “motherfucker” switch, as he explains to young Ranger recruit Derek Luke (Antone Fisher, Pieces of April). They are pulled in to a special situation when the President’s daughter goes missing. Turns out the Prez had an argument with his little girl and pulled security off her. But that’s not the only twist and turn in this oddly convoluted thriller, and Scott is hell-bent on learning what they all are by film’s end.
Like Mamet’s work on the script of Ronin, in Spartan he uses an allegory for an ancient Roman war tactic to represent the role of the lone hero - the Bobby Scott character. For Scott is, as he says in the film, just a hired gun. Until he starts thinking about what he’s doing and why he’s being told to do it. Then he realizes how much of a pawn he is and what he’s helped to hide. It is partially this realization which leads him to finish the job he was sent to do. As is often the case with stories of absolute power corrupting and the toll it takes on the lives of those involved, there are many carcasses left unanswered for in Spartan.
Similarly, the ending will probably leave most audiences dissatisfied. I believe that this is primarily because the true villain of the film is never shown, not even in still photo. I cannot say whom this is without giving away the ending, but because this person is never actually shown, the resolution will probably be a bit incomprehensible to American audiences which are used to their heroes and villains being painted as black-and-white and their functions pointed out in the most obvious of ways. But for a thinking person, including lovers of spy thrillers, I do believe Spartan’s conclusion to be completely satisfactory, and perfectly understandable.
The direction is taut and razor sharp until the last few frames, and even these are not that bad. The acting, especially by Kilmer, is very strong, and I believe he is showing great maturity with each new role. His supporting cast, including longtime Mamet favorites William H. Macy and Ed O’Neill, are all right on top of their performances. The film looks stunning, thanks to cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia (Glengarry Glen Ross, Confidence), and Mark Isham’s music was perfect, as always.
Although I enjoyed Spartan, I’m guessing it’s not for everyone. But if you enjoy a good spy thriller, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Mamet’s latest film.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, and teaches screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.
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