For `Spartan,' Mamet draws on dark side of cynicism

March 12, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

When he did Wag the Dog, David Mamet parodied the lengths to which modern-day politicians will go in pursuit of power. In Spartan, he's made that pursuit the stuff of nightmares.

At its essence, Spartan is the story of a kidnapping, with the president's daughter as the victim. Charged with finding her is Robert Scott (Val Kilmer), a career military man of extreme toughness and force of will -- he's one of those guys who'll do anything he's ordered to do, from mop a floor to murder a civilian, and worry about the moral implications never. Thank goodness he's on our side, right?

When word comes down that the first daughter has been snatched from her college campus, Scott and his new-recruit sidekick, the slightly over-eager Curtis (Antwone Fisher's Derek Luke) spring into action. The bullets start flying, the body count starts increasing, the nervous twitches on the faces of his superiors start registering more frequently.

To say much more about Spartan's plot would be both dangerous -- the sequence of events would be tough to describe, and would look pretty outlandish committed to paper -- and unfair. Much of the movie's considerable appeal comes from wondering which way the screw will turn next. Few of the turns are expected, and some come from considerably out in left field, but they do make sense, in a Shakespearean-political-thriller way.

What is fair to talk about is the film's cynical, sinister undertones. The Mamet at work here paints with about as dark a palate as possible, imagining a world in which nothing save the possession of power is of any importance. A few decades ago, such extremism would have been dismissed as unpalatable to mass audiences (Spartan makes The Manchurian Candidate seem positively cheery), but events of the past 30 years or so have made such bleakness possible (if not, in some minds, probable).

So don't go expecting a good time to be had. But by all means, go to revel in a movie that, for about two-thirds of its length, is Mamet at the top of his game -- intelligent, tightly crafted, densely layered.

Events break down at a certain point, and the ending, involving the timely arrival of a Swiss news team, is just this side of ludicrous. There are also occasions when Mamet's language gets caught up in itself, with characters mouthing words that must have looked good on paper, but don't work in the real world. If they'd been written by anyone but David Mamet, one suspects, the actors would have felt free to improvise a bit -- such is the price of fame sometimes.

But by the time such flaws really become noticeable, here's betting you'll be too caught up in the events that keep flying by to really care.

Spartan

Starring Val Kilmer, Derek Luke

Written and directed by David Mamet

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R (Violence, language)

Time 106 minutes

Sun Score ***

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