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The investigation into a kidnapping of the daughter of a high-ranking US government official.
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David Mamet thrillers really are in a class of their own, and not just because of the eccentric, convoluted sentences the actors have to find their way through—though in the right hands that’s pleasure enough. The only thing harder to find the end of are his plots, which bounce regularly from unfortunate to unforeseen.
But the real joy is in the depths of humanity—that can sometimes reach undecipherable levels—which he plumbs at a level most films just aren’t interested in. It doesn’t always work that well, but when Mamet’s at his best, there’s nothing else quite like it.
“Spartan” is Mamet at his near best.
Robert Scott (Val Kilmer) is one of the military’s best Special Forces operators, a soldier’s soldier. He believes in his duty to his country but has no sentimentality about what that means he will have to do. He’s seen too much for that because he’s the one you call to solve your worst problems.
And there’s probably nothing worse than having the President’s precocious daughter (Kristin Bell) kidnapped off her college campus in an election year.
Because it is a David Mamet film, “Spartan” is a slow burn from the get go as Scott slowly awakens to the danger not only that Laura is in, but which he himself has been in for some time without realizing it.
Kilmer seems born to play Robert Scott. Not everyone can make Mamet-speak work, but Kilmer takes to it like a duck water, making it all sound natural even when it descends into corny spy-speak referencing tall corn and chinamen.
It takes a little while to get there. Mamet gives his audience a more typical mystery plot to draw them in before delving into what “Spartan” is really about and the switchover may be jarring and even unintuitive to some. But it’s worth it for the depths he and Kilmer are able to plunge without ever letting up on sheer entertainment.
Of course, Mamet being Mamet, all that sparkling diction and moral complexity is wrapped up in plain brown paper bag and twine wrapping. There is an argument to be made for stylized visuals to get in the way of a film like some bejeweled piece of haute couture that’s actually impossible to walk around in without tripping over.
The other side of that argument, though, is the realization that if something is left flat and boring enough on the outside, it will be really difficult to drum up the will to get to the juicy part when banality often seems to be the word of the day. That’s an actuality Mamet has never really let himself believe, and “Spartan” suffers from it as much as any of the films he has directed have.
Ultimately, it doesn’t have the reputation or verisimilitude of a “Glengarry Glen Ross” or the sheer polish and adrenaline of a “Ronin.” He’ll always be writer first (which is probably why other director’s versions of his scripts are so much better than his own), but for a relentless entertainment with actual with wit and soul, “Spartan” may just be the best thing David Mamet has done, certainly the best he has directed.