View Full Version : An Icy Staging from David Mamet

04-08-2004, 12:00 PM
An Icy Staging from David Mamet
review by Chris Knipp

Mamet's Spartan doesn't quite feel like fun, but it almost feels efficient. It seems to make sense, but then again, it probably doesn't.

Val Kilmer is strong as an invincible maverick lone wolf ranger Marine secret agent type who's so good, or so independent, or just so idealized, that he can run his own show, even when he's single handedly retrieving the president's daughter from the clutches of a dubiously Middle Eastern band of flesh-trading miscreants. Kilmer calls her "the girl", and the film itself is shrouded in anonymity as if it were a 12-step program for spy adventure freaks.

An intricate story unfolds whereby “she” turns out to have been kidnapped from college because her secret service protection went AWOL. That turns into a cover-up for the president's philandering, and since it's an election year, his handlers decide to let the girl go and pretend she's dead, which leaves her in a fix, because she's been nabbed by Arab white slavers who don’t even know who she is. Silly Arab slavers! The fingerprints of Mamet’s post 9/11 racial meltdown are plain to see.

To atone for this -- or more accurately just to widen the demographic -- there are some prominent minority roles. The movie begins with a war game exercise supervised by Kilmer wherein his two future sidekicks chase each other, a black man panting through the woods behind a Latino woman. As a reward for this performance Curtis (Derek Luke), the young African American, gets to have his head blown off; and the tough chica he was chasing (Tia Texada) gets to be the last-minute rescuer, shot in the film's final minutes. Kilmer emerges with minor wounds, appearing in a brief afterward to show he's survived. `The girl' is whisked off from Dubai in a Scandinavian plane. What becomes of her, we will never know.

Kilmer is a soulful automaton at best, and in his wake, the viewer is left with nothing- no visual splendors, no emotion, no real impression. Surprisingly, arch-nerd, William H. Macy, makes a pretty mean amoral bureaucrat as the president's handlers' enforcer, and the actors in general do good work where they can.

And while Mamet's screenplay has some justifiably harsh things to say about American political morals, the film as a whole is plagued by racial misplay and a general coldness at every turn. Mamet is thought to be a brilliant playwright, but he's much less successful as a filmmaker or film writer, because his ingenious wordsmithery and richly simple characterizations seem strangely out of place in the intensely detailed physicality of a film. In the case of Spartan, he starts with a game but never gets beyond that, a mode of storytelling best fit for the stage. On screen, his attempt at the action genre is khaki, neutral, and pared down to the point that there's nothing much to look at or feel.

Spartan opened nationwide in March 2004.

Art and reviews at ChrisKnipp.com (http://www.chrisknipp.com).

04-18-2004, 06:00 PM
Have to disagree with your final conclusions here... I thought this latest from Mamet was a taunt, tight thriller that didn't use cheap shots, an over-abundance of genre cliches, or out-of-left-field twists to move the plot forward. I really enjoyed Kilmer's performance as well as the performance by the President's daughter. Of course, the cynical view of the President's staff is a little over the top and, interestingly, the character of the President seems to suggest that Mamet had a sort of Clintonesque type figure in mind. But, in any case, I quite enjoyed this thriller.

Chris Knipp
04-19-2004, 01:45 PM
I can agree with you that the president Mamet vaguely alludes to suggests the previous one more than the present one. If 'taut, tight thriller" is a quick fix, for some this movie provides that. I always "enjoy" Kilmer. Spartan took me out of myself for a couple of hours. But it left me with nothing afterwards.

04-19-2004, 03:30 PM
I guess I can agree with you that there's nothing about the movie that really has a lasting effect. It's just a good night's entertainment or "quick fix" as you say. But, it is good enought that I would watch it again if asked by friends and such.

Chris Knipp
04-19-2004, 07:16 PM
Well, it's your time. . . But of course to keep people company one sometimes watches something one wouldn't watch otherwise.

oscar jubis
01-18-2005, 05:32 PM
There probably was a worst film released in 2004 although I didn't see it or don't remember it. This is a compendium of implausibilities used to justify a pile of corpses. One-dimensional characters spewing macho bullshit and technobabble. But that's half the story. This is about as perverse and cynical as movies can get. I'm going to take a long bath. The name "Mamet" no longer means jack to me.

Chris Knipp
01-18-2005, 07:37 PM
There are other worst film candidates, but I seem to have avoided those: this one is pretty useless, you're right. I was really very idle that afternoon at the cineplex and had seen everything good or I'd not have gone. Sorry you wasted your time with it.

04-17-2005, 01:24 AM
I have to agree with anduril. For me as I've explained elsewhere the icy staging was the perfect motiff, directorial direction to take in this movie and I would hope it would show up in other espionage movies. It brings up the past black and white, cold war scenario of the real nature of the espionage instead of the feel good sort of feelings we get in Mission Impossible or Charlies Angels, and even in the Bourne Identity/Supremacy.

The harshness, the starkness reflects the icy, bitter serious life and death reality of the stakes and the ending was a good one, particularly following a more nebulous ending, a European tone. The coolness, the need for impassioned response, reaction and the dilemma of getting personally involved are all highlightened in this movie. I'm really surprise that some viewers weren't able to appreciate what I considered a superior production.

04-17-2005, 01:25 AM
Ok...I have been put on notice before that I'll need to watch this movie again (as some have pointed out bewildered by my even thinking such a thought).