There’s a line in David Mamet’s Spartan that says adrenaline is the strongest drug there is. Rest assured that Mamet, as writer and director, keeps the adrenaline flowing through his new thriller. His film also serves as a vehicle for some pointed observations of unprincipled politicians in high places and their utterly cynical use of spin to gain the greatest advantage from every turn of events. Better yet, substitute lies for spin. Given current events, isn’t it about time to abandon "spin" as a euphemism?
From Spartan’s opening shots, a hand-held camera following a chase through a forest to a pulsing score by Mark Isham (The Cooler), the pace is set for fast action and faster plot turns. With Mamet, nothing is ever as it seems.
Val Kilmer (The Missing, Pollock) stars as Robert Scott, a career Marine working on special operations–shady, highly secretive undertakings where any means justifies the ends. Life is cheap and civil rights are unheard of, but Kilmer is a cool operator, salving his conscience with the belief that he is working in the interests of his country. On the job, he is terse and to the point–perfect for Mamet’s hallmark dialogue patterns: clipped, flatly intoned, laced with hesitations, truncated phrases, repetitions. For Kilmer, it’s all scrubbed of emotion, providing him the blinders he needs to engage in his brutal business.
The business at hand is the rescue of the president’s daughter who has been kidnapped from the Harvard campus. Following clues–often violently obtained–it appears that the kidnappers are a Dubai-based white slavery ring. Plot turns follow in double-time, the kind of puzzle that Mamet relishes, with often unexpected twists and occasional stretches of credulity. The latter don’t matter much, though, since most of it works and it all flies by so quickly that it’s easy to let go of niggling inconsistencies.
Scott is given a partner, Curtis (Derek Luke, Antwone Fisher) ), a newcomer to the team, but Spartan is no buddy movie. When Curtis first attempts to introduce himself, Scott interrupts him: "Do I need to know? If I want camaraderie, I’ll join the Masons." He’s straining to keep things clinical, both for efficiency on the job and to insulate himself from the hurt of possible future loss. Espionage is a deadly business. But Curtis becomes key to turning up the truth of what is going on and he gets Scott involved on a moral basis, beyond the limits of military authority. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as right and wrong.
Mamet is nothing if not consistent. Always rooted in thoughtful ideas and graced with irony, his stylized dialogue has the effect of focusing attention on what is being said, as contrasted with, say, more ordinary thrillers in which the dialogue is generally little more than a series of plot-moving cliches. With that stylization, Mamet balances on the narrow line separating reality and a theatrical abstraction. If too highly stylized, the piece would shift gears and probably lose a good deal of the audience. In both Spartan and his prior film, Heist, Mamet has found a balance that allows for the focus on the word, but doesn’t interfere with delivering a gripping story. It’s all enhanced by his sense of visual style (a very dark palette, lots of saturated blues and greens here), his ability to draw out the best from his actors, and his devilishly imaginative way with Byzantine plotlines.