A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, R, 106 mins.

Scott: Val Kilmer / Curtis: Derek Luke / Laura Newton: Kristen Bell / Stoddard: William H. Macy / Burch: Ed O'Neill
Jackie Black: Tia Texada

Written and directed by David Mamet

Is there ever a more sadly underrated talent working in modern films than Val Kilmer? 

Before you balk, just consider his enormous range.  Heís played everything from The Doorís lead singer Jim Morrsion, the king of porn John Holmes, legendary western figure Doc Holiday, Elvis inspired spoof singer Nick Rivers, a swashbuckling fantasy swordsman named Madmartigan, a blind man who regained his sightÖhellÖhe even played Batman and Billy the Kid!  Not too many actors can boast the resume that Kilmer has, and despite his reputation for being professionally flaky and difficult to work with, he remains a great character actor that gets really little critical respect. 

If you have any doubts, just look at his work here in David Mametís new political thriller SPARTAN.  Kilmerís performance as a Special CIA Ops soldier is arguably his best and solidifies him as a first rate performer.  He carries the piece with confidence, resolve, and an icy, detached, yet forceful charisma that would make DeNiro or Pacino proud.  It also does not hurt that the film is written and directed by the finest writer working in contemporary cinema Ė David Mamet. 

Anyone even remotely familiar with Mametís past work should come out of SPARTAN with nice reflective smile on his or her face.  Nobody writes great dialogue like Mamet, as his characters donít talk in that dry, wooden, Hollywood garble that serves no other purpose than to advance the characters and plot.   Mamet is a magician of colorful, whimsical, quick, quirky, and offbeat dialogue.  Sometimes his characters speak in amazingly sparse shorthand, other times they are capable of displaying an uncanny comical use of four and twelve letter expletives that takes on a level of offbeat poetry.  If masters like Welles and Scorsese are the geniuses of camera work and style, then Mamet is the master of dialogue.  When he does it, itís almost a style in on itself.  It has such a unique cadence that, even when characters talk in ways that donít seem realistic, you are always appreciative of its color, wit, and originality. 

As for the film, itís a tight, brilliantly plotted and well-acted political thriller that flies by in a labyrinthian maze of deception and double cross.  Itís a real modern film noir, not so much in the sense that its visuals follows its conventions, but has characters that populate it that never quite seem who they are.  Actually, many of the characters donít even come across as particularly likeable, as their forcefulness and stone cold determination drive their motives.  The film is really Mametís first narrative epic.  His previous works seem small compared to the farĖreaching implications of SPARTAN, which takes its characters all over the world and involves The White House, The Secret Service, The President, and middle eastern kidnappers.  This is a thinking-manís James Bond flick without the high-tech and overstuffed special effects. 

The plot details the kidnapping of the President's daughter, Laura Newton (Kristen Bell). She is kidnapped from a Harvard nightclub where she is attending classes. Scott (Kilmer) emerges to take on the case, as he is a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails and fiercely determined marine operative.  He has a huge hurtle to overcome: he only has 48 hours to locate her before the media learns that she's missing (funny how the media becomes a silent antagonist in the piece).  He accompanies himself with a lone sidekick, Curtis (Derek Luke), and begins the investigation. 

Scott is one of the least squeaky clean investigators Iíve seen who, along the way, is never afraid to break arms, violate suspects' civil rights, and even fakes killings to get the answer he wants.  When he ultimately discerns the real reasons for Lauraís abduction (which I wonít reveal here) he proceeds in what he sees as immediate closure to his investigation, but is dealt with layers of deceptions and cons that produce unforeseen emotional blows.     

The enormous pleasure of watching SPARTAN is primarily in how it has the time and patience to develop its story.  It's not one of those witless action pictures that feels the need to rush to the next mindless scene where characters are killed and stuff blows up really well.  SPARTAN does have action, to be sure, but its more interested in investigating the men behind the scenes as well and allowing them to become the attraction of the film and not the action itself.  Most thrillers are driven by action and plot, whereas SPARTAN is driven primarily by characters first and action second. 

The early scenes are fascinating as it develops tension and anticipation even before we are readily aware of who or what the investigators are looking for.  These scenes also demonstrate Mamet's ingenious use of verbal shorthand with the characters.  They are experts in their fields and donít talk in moviespeak, but rather in a realistic shorthand.  They say the least amount possible to get their points across because, being experts, they can read each otherís words before they are spoken, often finishing each otherís sentences.  The dialogue is stylized, yes, but it gives the film the sort of artistic verisimilitude. 

Another aspect that makes SPARTAN so thoroughly entertaining is the way it presents its respective characters.  These are not men driven by the motive of doing well and rescuing the Presidentís daughter because itís the ďrightĒ thing to do.  They do it because itís their job.  They seem emotionally detached, yet completely focused on completing the task on hand.  They are more worried about consequences and not the girl.  Thatís intrinsically fascinating because the characters emerge less like heroic figures and more like forceful and vigilante warriors. 

This is so true of the Kilmer character.  Playing him as a straight good guy would have been the wrong move completely..  He leans into the people that impede his investigation, and he leans awfully hard.  Heís kind of a weird amalgamation of Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH meets SHAFT.  Kilmer comes across as assured and convincing in the role, and is capable of easily bursting from his reserved coolness to exploding on other characters.  He really has no scruples about whom he hurts, and even is shown threatening women in the film.  His motive is simple: to get the job done, and itís his singular obsession with that goal that makes his performance an anti-heroic treasure. 

The supporting cast is also well handled.  William H. Macey also shows up (an old Mamet performer) in an odd and surprising performance.  You kind of smile when he shows up and seems to just make one home run after another with that wonderfully sparse Mametian dialogue.  His performance feels like a cameo, but later develops into something more.  Derek Luke is also believable in his role of Kilmerís partner.  Heís not one of those stereotypical movie partners that is given nothing to do but follow Kilmerís lead.  Heís allowed to explore with his character and comes across as an intelligent investigator who genuinely assists with the proceedings.  Even Kristen Bell, as the Presidentís daughter, is surprising in both her motives and performance.  Sheís not a damsel that needs rescuing, but more of a young woman that needs reconciliation with her estranged father.  Ed OíNeil also turns in a solid performance as a government official and is another good character actor thatís better than he gets credit for. 

SPARTAN is a real buried pleasure.  Itís a film that had an indecently short theatrical life, but itís now on DVD and should be given the attention it rightfully deserves.  As a thriller, its expertly plotted and fantastic in how it reveals layer upon layer of deception.  It slowly draws you into its intriguing world and develops its story and characters into something more than the genre usually provides.  And at the heart of it all is Val Kilmer, turning in a performance that holds the piece together so effectively.  Heís just so good in the film that you watch with a feeling of sincere thanks.  Kilmer has made some stinkers in the past, but when giving the opportunity, heís capable as being as good as anyone.

SPARTAN is one of the best films of 2004.

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