David Mamet is what David Lynch could be if Lynch’s movies ever made any sense. In Spartan, Mamet has constructed a taut military thriller that demands the audience think its way through to the end.
Spartan focuses on a nameless special operations soldier played by Val Kilmer, at the forefront of a massive manhunt for a kidnapped VIP. Who Kilmer is and just who it is that he’s hunting unfolds as a part of the events swirling around the film, never as a piece of obvious exposition that awkwardly lays things out for you. Mamet just isn’t interested in stopping to explain what’s going on, requiring that his audience members be savvy enough to hold on. The result is a movie in which describing the plot could be considered a horrible spoiler, since the real genius of Spartan is found in trying to stay with the story as it is incrementally revealed.
What does occur happens at breakneck speed as Mamet flashes us through the process of launching a massive military operation. Kilmer and the organization which recruits him co-opt anything and everything as a base. The locker room under a football stadium quickly becomes a fully staffed Secret Service headquarters in the middle of the night. A whore house is transformed into an interrogation chamber as the most professional of professionals do literally anything to achieve their objective.
Kilmer shines here like he never has before, playing a character somewhat reminiscent of his Catholicism obsessed thief in The Saint, only more practical and brutal. Val’s age really works for him. He’s now a man in his forties, and Mamet uses that to give him the look of a hardened veteran who’s seen more than he should. He rips across the screen, calmly proclaiming himself without limit in achieving his given objective. Like all Spartan’s characters, Kilmer spills out dialogue with rapidity, saying only what must be said before moving on to his next objective. Here is a man who follows orders. No more, no less. Morality is determined by whatever he’s told to do next. Yet somehow, a character that could have been a static killer is fleshed out into a man of depth and conflict. Mamet does a fantastic job of letting Kilmer’s character be defined by his actions in the film, rather than by stopping to tick off a list of personal details.
Mamet has gone out of his way to create an almost overly brainy and atmospheric masterpiece. Kilmer woke up from his career slumber and hit a home run. But it is Spartan’s supporting players that drag this movie down from the top. Derek Luke, who turned in such a great performance in Antwone Fisher leaves at least some impression as Kilmer’s protégé and Ed O’Neil is stellar in a brief cameo, while everyone else ranges from passable to outright horrible. A lot of Spartan’s bit part actors could seriously use some acting classes. It’s as if they’re all so used the slowed down, over emphasized dialogue delivery of typical Hollywood that they’re totally incapable of handling a movie which requires them to speak at a rapid, closer to normal pace.
It may be weird to think that a director like David Mamet has created an action packed military thriller. It’ll only take you one viewing to realize that he knew exactly what he was doing. Spartan isn’t some typical effects heavy, special ops spy flick, though it could have easily been marketed as one. Had Spartan gone that direction and flooded television airwaves with big, noisy action trailers it would no doubt fill a lot of seats. However, while the movie could make a ton of money being sold like that, those people just wouldn’t get it. For many, Spartan will be way over their heads. For the rest of us, it’s a thrilling military puzzle not to be attempted by the faint of brain.