Spartan Lacks Spark
David Mamet films are like a detective story, or a magic trick. He shows you everything you need to know, but nothing is what it seems. This is a key part of their appeal, as each line or glance might be a vital clue, keeping the audience on edge. At least until Spartan. The sad fact is that as good as this movie is, it lacks the playfulness and originality of Mametís best films, such as The Spanish Prisoner.
Like Mametís last film, Heist, Spartan is more grounded in genre than his previous work and suffers from it, as the ingenuity of the execution fails to disguise the routine characters and plot.
Itís a plot which Tom Clancy might have written. Val Kilmer plays Scott, a bullet-headed military expert called in to rescue the abducted daughter of a high-profile politician. The story involves the highest echelons of the military, CIA, and government; and takes place across America and the Middle East.
All Mametís considerable strengths are on display. The dialogue fizzes, full of jargon and hidden meanings, conveying character while seeming determined to do the opposite.
The storytelling is delightfully oblique, consistently withholding information and leading us up blind alleys, yet always one step ahead and determinedly logical.
The acting is first-rate too. Mamet always lets the story tell the story, rather than the actor, and in doing so even manages to get a good performance out of Val Kilmer -- certainly a first for this millennium.
Spartan even looks like a proper thriller. For all their charms, Mametís early films had a stagy, mannered quality that kept the viewer at armís length. Spartanís production design is full of impressive details, and has a stylish graininess perfectly suited to the genre.
Despite all these positive qualities, Spartan comes across as a dull story with unconvincing, unappealing characters. Scott resembles a charmless Jack Ryan, without any of the doubts or fears that would make such a character believable.
The plot appears equally routine -- a political thriller about corruption and power, and the soldierís struggle between following orders and personal integrity. Although thereís much to admire here, weíve seen this story before, and weíve seen it done better.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "R" for violence and language.)