Spartan. Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film written and directed by David Mamet. Running time: 106 minutes. Rated R (for violence and language). Starring Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, Tia Texada, William H. Macy, Ed O'Neill, Kristen Bell.


Warning: Spartan is the type of film that is best enjoyed without any previous knowledge of the events contained within. I have taken care to not reveal any key plot points, but it might serve you well to come back after seeing the film.

Spartan, the latest film by writer/director David Mamet (Heist, State and Main), is like an episode of the television series 24: fast-paced, endlessly gripping, entertaining, impersonal and sometimes utterly implausible. The film's events fly by at an unbelievable speed; not a moment of the film is devoted to anything other than advancing the plot. Take an ill-advised bathroom or snack break and you may return to find a major character dead, betrayed, or suddenly untrustworthy. The twists come fast and furious, sometimes likely, sometimes the farthest thing from likely, but, at the time, it all makes sense, because we are so caught up in the action.

The President's daughter, Laura Newton, (Kristen Bell) goes missing. She is kidnapped from a nightclub near Harvard, after her Secret Service guard abandons his post. He's taken in for questioning but kills himself before he gets a chance to answer questions. On the case is Scott (Val Kilmer), a marine operative who is given 48 hours to find the girl before the press picks up on it and the abductors are forced to kill her. He sets out, along with a lone partner (Derek Luke). He soon discovers that Laura has been forced into a white slavery ring and that her abductors don't even know who she is - she was simply a pretty blonde in the wrong place at the wrong time. But before he can get to those who took her, a new development switches everything around.

The dialogue of Spartan crackles with the same trademark touches that Mamet has become known for. The characters speak in short, clipped sentences. They use shop lingo, rather than plot-advancing clichés ("Gentlemen, the President's daughter has been kidnapped"). Things are revealed piece by piece through their statments and actions. We understand what is going on because of the characters' interactions and responses to events. This is all too rare nowadays - a politcal thriller that refrains from spelling everything out for the audience. Even after the credits have rolled, it may take a little bit of thinking to figure everything out.

Spartan is similar to the Mamet-written Wag the Dog, in that it involves an elaborate government conspiracy. The film takes a dark view of American politics and the electoral system, positing that morals and concerns for human life often take a back seat to political ambition. For a cynic like me, this creates an intriguing backdrop for the on-screen happenings because I can't help but think that maybe it isn't too far from the truth.

Some actors can handle the unique rhythm of Mamet's writing, some can't. Val Kilmer, a strong actor and once-rising star who has recently been taking roles in small films, can. He makes an imposing figure out of Scott, a man who will do anything to get the job done. He is often devoid of much emotion, which works in this case, allowing for a slow burn of emotion that only ocasionally erupts. When it does, it's terrifying. William H. Macy and Ed O'Neill both have small parts as government officials. Macy's role only becomes clear very late in the film and he ends up walking away with the climax.

But I'm not really sure what to think of said climax. It's kind of implausible, and a little contrived, especially the way a news crew just happens to be at the scene. But it does succeed in getting the blood pumping, which is what Spartan is all about, really. You might be confused, you might roll your eyes or wince once or twice. But I swear: you will never be bored.

© 2004 Matt Noller