Sometimes, it's hard to figure the public. "Spartan" was a major film from a major studio, Warner Bros., made by a major writer-director, David Mamet, and starring a major movie star, Val Kilmer. Yet it bombed at the box office. Seems more than a little unfair, considering it's a very good film, and especially considering the profits made by far less accomplished films. Maybe life is unfair. Certainly, it is life's inequities that is one of Mamet's themes in this 2004 action thriller.
Val Kilmer plays a military intelligence officer named Scott. Marine Master Gunner John Bobby Scott. Or maybe it's not John. Or Bobby. Or even Scott. And maybe he's not a Master Gunner or even a Marine. All we know for sure about him is that he's very, very good at what he does. Which is to train agents for and participate in government covert operations.
Kilmer usually plays complex characters, and Mamet usually writes complex scripts, but this time both men step out of character somewhat to do a straightforward espionage drama. Well, as straightforward as these men know how. You see, you're still going to find one of Kilmer's typically conflicted characters and some Mamet's literate dialogue, just less of both. You'll also find fewer of the clipped cadences that Mamet so loves in his characters' speech patterns, so this is another change for him.
The movie proceeds with commendable pace and purpose, only losing its way about halfway through when Mamet appears to give up on subtlety and decides to provide his audience with what they want in a spy thriller, namely excitement and melodrama. Mamet is known for his plot twists, so expect them here, too; but rather than the filmmaker's usual cerebral kind, they're more action oriented. As a result, they don't seem quite as smart or clever as Mamet's more intellectual games. No matter; the action here is tense and suspenseful from beginning to end, with very little filler and very few distractions, even if some of it goes over-the-top in the last half hour.
The plot involves the kidnapping a young college woman, presumably the U.S. President's daughter, although that fact is never mentioned in the film. The kidnappers have grabbed her not knowing who she is, for sale overseas in a sex-slavery scheme. The problem is that the government knows that when the kidnappers find out who they've got, they're going to kill her rather than risk death themselves. So the government has only a limited amount of time before the newspapers find out the girl has gone missing, and the kidnappers find out, too.
Scott is called upon to lead the investigation. "I'm here to get the girl back," Scott tells his superior, "and there is nothing I will not do to get the girl back." Yeah, he's a tough guy and not above literally breaking a suspect's arm to get him to talk. But Scott is a follower, not a leader. He does what he's told, and as I said, he's good at doing whatever he's told. He's cold, almost emotionless, and the question that nags the viewer throughout most of the story is at what point he will begin thinking for himself. Because with Mamet's cynical view of how politicians, governments, and government agencies work, we're never sure whom to trust. As Scott says, "It's all in the mind... That's where the battle's won."
This is primarily Kilmer's picture, and with his riveting screen presence, he pulls it off handily. Among his supporting cast are Derek Luke as Curtis and Tia Texada as Jackie Black, a pair of Scott's student protégés who assist him with his investigation. Then, there is Kristen Bell as Laura Newton, the kidnapped girl; Ed O'Neill as the head of the government's investigative team; and that good ol' Mamet standby, William H. Macy, as Stoddard, a government flunky.
As expected from Mamet, we get an intelligent script and no-nonsense direction. Things might get exaggerated for dramatic effect, but they hang together. At least, until a person has a chance to inspect them later, after the movie's over. Then you realize that Mamet has pulled another one of his famous con jobs, this time making us believe that all the silliness we've just witnessed could have really taken place. No, it couldn't; or wouldn't. But it's Mamet's gift to make us believe it while we're watching it, and that's all that counts.
So, why didn't the movie do well with the public? Maybe the action is too clinical, too methodical, even when the plot is overstating its ideas or taking yet another turn in an unforeseen direction where nobody and nothing is safe. Maybe it's Mamet's style to be too objective, even when the plot involves lies, deceit, and hypocrisy. I dunno. But I found it a satisfying two-hour ride, and a nail-biter in more than a few instances. What's more, I found myself wanting to see Kilmer back as Scott in a new adventure. Highest praise I can think of.
Warner Brothers' current use of a high bit rate is paying off. The picture quality on this transfer is crystal clear, the colors are solid, and the screen is free of extraneous grain. Facial tones are almost always near perfect, and halos and shimmering lines are largely absent. This is probably about as good as a conventional DVD picture is going to get.
The highlights of this movie's Dolby Digital 5.1 audio are its deep bass and its wide stereo spread. Otherwise, it's quite ordinary for a modern soundtrack. Most of the sound remains firmly rooted in the front channels, where it is, as I say, wide and robust. But with the exception of a little musical percussion, which manages to makes its presence felt in the sides of the listening area, not even a helicopter flyover does much in the rear. For an action thriller, a little more excitement might have been generated by the use of the surrounds, but it is not to be.
Not much here, either. The main item is an audio commentary with Val Kilmer, whose voice seems a little stressed, like he's out of breath or something. Don't know why. Maybe he was nervous; seems unlikely. Nevertheless, he makes some cogent observations. Besides the commentary, there are twenty-eight scene selections and a widescreen theatrical trailer. Typical of a film that didn't make a lot of money at the box office, the studio didn't spend a lot of money on the DVD extras, so English is the only spoken language you'll find. But all is not lost because the studio did provide English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
OK, "Spartan" wasn't the biggest-grossing picture in Hollywood history. No matter. What counts is that it's a good, taut espionage film that people now have a chance to see on disc in their own home. With another solid performance from Kilmer and a typically alert, if uncommon, script from Mamet, "Spartan" deserves at least a rental. I'm not sure how well it would hold up to repeat viewing, but that once can be rewarding