David Mamet takes his favorite themes -- deception, sly machinations and deadly games -- and boxes himself into a corner in "Spartan." Pic shows the writer-director testing a genre -- the thriller, about the abduction of the U.S. President's daughter -- with results that will intrigue those interested in the nooks and crannies of Mamet's career.
David Mamet takes his favorite themes — deception, sly machinations and deadly games — and boxes himself into a corner in “Spartan.” A work that continually seems on the verge of genuine excitement but sabotages itself at every turn, pic shows the vet playwright and writer-director testing a genre — the thriller, about the abduction of the U.S. President’s daughter — with results that will intrigue only those interested in the nooks and crannies of Mamet’s career. That select audience sector won’t sustain the picture for long theatrically, although homevid action will be better.“Spartan” plays like a curious hybrid: On one side, it is a seemingly commercial studio job of the sort Mamet has done before; on the other, its web of plot and counterplot, decorated with characteristically off-angle dialogue, is distinctly the writer’s own. The plot, however, finally collapses under scrutiny, and the dialogue is often inappropriate and unrelated to the characters. Furthering the film’s profile as a minor Mamet entry is the near-complete absence, except for unsatisfying appearances by William H. Macy and Ed O’Neill, of his usual stock company of thesps fully tuned to Mamet’s verbal style. Pic’s habit of dropping viewers right into the middle of activity is set from the opening scene, which shows special operations leader Scott (Val Kilmer) running new recruit Curtis (Derek Luke) through an exercise with Jackie (Tia Texada), one of unit’s few women. The nature and purpose of the tough military group has not been revealed when, suddenly, Scott is whisked to Washington for an investigation involving a Secret Service screw-up. For the first 20 minutes of “Spartan,” the lack of backgrounding creates an effectively unsettling mood. Once it becomes clear that the crisis surrounds the abduction of the President’s daughter, the evidently troubled Laura Newton (Kristen Bell) from her Harvard dorm room, and that her father had “borrowed” her Secret Service detail, pic assumes a more conventional direction, while suggesting narrative strands that are left unresolved. For no clear reason, rookie Curtis is teamed for this ultra-sensitive op with Scott, who’s willing to cut out a suspect’s eyes in order to extract information. White House point man Burch (O’Neill) orders Scott to go “off the meter” (Mamet-speak for no-holds-barred) in the hunt for the slave traders of women who have apparently taken Laura to Dubai. Along the way, Scott ruthlessly plucks one of the trader kingpins (Said Taghmaoui) who’s in federal prison, but an accompanying flurry of action and gunfire fails to propel the story forward. Just as suddenly, Curtis is gunned down, leaving Kilmer’s Scott alone to carry the rest of the film. Mamet apparently intends to address the purity of one man deciding to fulfill a mission on his own (thus the title, referring to the Spartans’ practice of doing military missions with a solo soldier), but the point appears minor, swamped by woefully undeveloped backstories involving the “savage” First Family that raised Laura, and a conspiracy that inexplicably leaves the loyal Scott out of the loop. By the time Macy — denied nearly any dialogue in his few scenes until the last 10 minutes — has his big scene with Kilmer, the emptiness of “Spartan” is all too evident. Never fully convincing as hard-nut special ops guy, Kilmer has considerable trouble with Mamet’s highly contorted dialogue, dwelling on the words rather than (as Mamet’s usual actors do) punching right through them. Ironically, Macy, who’s aces at Mamet’s lingo, is saddled with pic’s worst, most generic lines. Luke is wasted. Pic looks and sounds terrific and moves along at the right clip for a thriller, with strikingly beautiful widescreen lensing by Juan Ruiz Anchia and a strong underscore by Mark Isham that’s a model of its kind.