Laura Clifford Robin CliffordRobert Scott (Val Kilmer, "Wonderland") is a special ops agent who specializes not in thinking or planning, but execution. When the president's daughter, Laura Newton (Kristen Bell, "Pootie Tang") is kidnapped from her Harvard University dorm, Scott is flown in and partnered with his recent protege Curtis (Derek Luke, "Pieces of April") by a task force made up of presidential advisors, the FBI and CIA. News of Laura Newton's drowning death creates a sad defeat for Scott, but Curtis questions authority convincingly. Scott turns renegade fighting those he once warriored for in his own personal Trojan War. He is the "Spartan."
Writer/director David Mamet ("Heist") has fashioned a twisty thriller, but his highly cynical story is at constant odds with his trademark repetitive Mamet-speak. In his last film, "Heist," a lesser story was served by actors like Gene Hackman, who mastered the staccato dialogue. Here, Mamet cannot direct his actors to make his own words sound anything but artificial. While "Spartan" is beautiful to look at, its overly stylized language is a constant distraction and its world exists only in Mamet's head.
An introductory training segment establishes Scott as single-minded and a female sergeant, Jackie Black (Tia Texada, "Phone Booth"), determined to join one of his missions. Upon arriving at task force headquarters, Scott refutes Laura's Secret Service man's claims that he never left his post. When the man commits suicide, presumably unobserved, the more questioning Curtis spies a warning flag. But steely Scott assures Burch (Ed O'Neill, TV's "Married: With Children") 'I'm here to get the girl back, Sir. There's nothing I won't do. To get the girl back.' Scott and Curtis go into the field and trace clues which lead them to a white slavery ring that unwittingly kidnapped the President's daughter. Curtis observes Laura's signature traced on a windowpane at a beach holding house and Scott kills a cop to kidnap the convict he was transporting, obtaining details of the slavery operation (the girls are shipped in crates to Dubai). Then the entire team is stopped dead in their tracks by television news reports that Laura Newton's body and that of her Harvard professor have been recovered after a sailing accident. Scott returns to his rural home to await his next mission, but Curtis breaks through Scott's spartan worldview with further proof that the girl was at the beach house. For the first time, the stoic warrior is moved to plan his own mission.
Mamet paints a dark portrait of the lengths clandestine ops will go to in a presidential election year. There is some sly humor (the kidnapped girl's recent cut and dye job is discussed with great solemnity by the men in black) and many references to Greek mythology (A sign prominent in the interrogation proclaims "Her name is Victory," a reference to the goddess of war worshipped by the Athenians during their war against the Spartans. We last see Scott in Piccadilly Circus against a statue of Eros, the god who arranged for Helen to be kidnapped from the King of Sparta.)
O'Neill is surprisingly effective as a deathly serious suit and William H. Macy is a Mamet regular used to slinging his lingo, but Kilmer doesn't adapt well to the Mamet oeuvre. The less experienced Luke fares much better with the clipped vernacular. Kilmer plays his Spartan pokerfaced throughout, even after he steps out of his mold, only emoting for a woman lost in the saving of the girl.
The film looks lush, with velvety night photography (Juan Ruiz Anchía, "Off the Map," "Confidence") and warmed watery hues of daylight. Production designer Gemma Jackson ("State and Main") uses a Howard Johnson color scheming, coding with orange (convicts' jumpsuits, shipping containers) and blue (Scott's plaid shirt, Boston's floodlit Zakim Bridge), colors that also bath the light and adorn the doors of a convenience store ops center. Mark Isham's ("Twisted") music plays against the genre, beginning with a funereal cello for a training exercise.
While Mamet's language almost embalms this outing, "Spartan" is a technically accomplished film with an intriguing and bleak premise.
Robin did not see this film.
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