2004Director: David Mamet
Cast: Val Kilmer, Derek Luke
ometimes when you have a problem you just can't seem to fix yourself, it's time to bring in a specialist. Sometimes that specialist is a special operative, a graceful killing machine with incredible discipline and a Zen-like ability to empty his head of anything but his prime directive. He needs to be eerily level-headed and yet willing to work "off the meter" and beyond the range of the laws mere mortals are held to. What's that, you say? Val Kilmer is available? Aces!
A film of sadly predictable tone (that is, Mamet-lite) and questionable logic, Spartan brings to the big screen a harrowing tale of President loses daughter, president hires special operative to retrieve daughter, and a whole bunch of people get killed along the way to finding much more than just one kidnapped girl.
Here, Kilmer is elite mariner Robert Scott, a smooth-handed shooter who humbly (or perhaps robotically) thinks of himself simply as a "worker bee". Called upon by a series of secret service thugs, including the bluntly dazzling Ed O'Neill and the underwhelmingly cast William H. Macy, Kilmer's character is sent on a stealthy adventure of retrieval in the company of military rookie Curtis, played by Derek Luke. The tropes here are obvious enough: no one in the audience must surely believe the commander's claim that this will be a "straightforward extraction", and indeed when the puzzle seems too-quickly solved, there's little doubt that more backstabbing and twisting-of-plot are to come.
Pivoting on Scott's crisis of conscience, Spartan turns from a tale of suspense into one of internal conflict. When Curtis approaches an off-duty Scott in his rural hometown (the root, presumably, of Kilmer's bizarre switches between a small-town hick accent and that stilted Mamet clip while on the job) it's not to test the strength of his dedication to his job, but his dedication to good, to the truth. Scott is staunchly resistant to pushing the case of the missing girl further: he doesn't make plans, he just follows orders, he says. Curtis, who never did follow Scott's directions to set his "motherfucker", as Scott referred to his brain, to "receive" only, convinces him that the case isn't as finished as he thinks. Scott eventually acquiesces in the face of what he—perhaps for the first time in his military career—decides for himself is right.
Through a series of international capers and wild-goose chases (involving what is perhaps the most bizarre use of an emoticon in a major motion picture), Scott wends his way towards his goal, and in doing so the film loses the only thread of plot that was really very interesting, Scott’s struggle with a career of cognitive dissonance. Along the way he makes an implausibly intimate confession to a subordinate female marine (though it does advance the plot) and, just to bring the total count of women in the movie to three, encounters the secret, would-be-mother of the missing girl. "I raised her!" she sobs cloyingly to Scott, insisting no one else in the world truly loves her but the missing girl and vice versa, so of course he simply must get her back.
David Mamet has made a pile of wonderful movies about "innocent" people getting totally screwed, but the characters here, even as empty vessels or victims of circumstance, are wholly unsympathetic, and, really, uninteresting. While the dialogue is charming and the international cavorting is totally engaging, suspense and even release are hard to come by. The film's real merits lie in its indictment of the US government's capacity to force ends to justify means, and to spin reality into only the most palatable version of the "truth".
Though the titillation of espionage and the genre-required series of double- and triple-fuckovers makes Spartan somewhat fun to watch, it's ultimately a disposable Hollywood chaseabout. Kilmer's not bad in his role, but nor is he dynamic or even deep-reaching: though his character's military strengths lie in his flatness, the success of the movie may have hinged on his ability to exhibit depth.
By: Liz Clayton
Published on: 2004-03-17