David Mamet has always had something of the fast-talking carnival barker about him, spinning out elaborate shell-game plots designed to con viewers with intricate narratives while engaging them with snazzy, rat-a-tat language that seemed totally sui generis. But rarely has his spiel seemed quite so forced and slipshod as in “Spartan,” which the master of Mamet-speak has directed from his own script. The screenplay–which involves a covert operations agent in a kidnapping with both international and domestic political implications–is convoluted all right, but in the end not satisfyingly so; indeed, by the time the final twist rolls around, the whole thing seems like something that might have been extracted from the trash bin reserved for castoff bits from the script Mamet co-wrote for “Wag the Dog.” Unfortunately, the sort of over-the-top material that worked brilliantly in the context of a dark satire comes across as rather absurd when played relatively straight, as here. Moreover, the dialogue that Mamet has devised, though it has much of his characteristically clipped, slangy style, sounds flat and clumsily artificial. Perhaps that’s because–although there are a few Mamet veterans here, like William H. Macy–most of the actors are new to his work. But even in the mouth of Macy and Ed O’Neill, the words here just don’t carry the charge Mamet’s speeches ordinarily do. The fault would seem to lie, therefore, not merely in the delivery, but in the text.
The piece centers on Robert Scott (Val Kilmer), a tough-as-nails lone gun in military intelligence, who’s brought into a hurriedly tossed together Secret Service operation to track down Laura Newton (Kristen Bell), a Harvard coed who also happens to be the president’s daughter. She’s disappeared, perhaps as a result of a tiff with her boyfriend, or in connection with an affair she’s been having with one of her teachers, or–in the most awful case–as a victim of a white-slavery ring that collects blonde Americans for transport to the Arabian peninsula. For some unexplained reason, the person chosen as Scott’s partner in the operation is Curtis (Derek Luke), a rookie who’s only just completed his training. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the plot twists that Mamet concocts as things proceed; suffice it to say that many characters fall bloodily by the wayside in the process and the revelations that emerge by the close involve the same sort of political skulduggery that enveloped the president in “Wag the Dog,” though the chief executive in this case seems only partially reflective of the current occupant of the White House (he’s described as a complete captive of his handlers–fair enough–but also a Clintonesque womanizer). The denouement’s sense of triumph is, predictably, temporary–undermined not only by loss but also by a reaffirmation of the power of the amoral, deceptive establishment. (I must confess, however, that what the very last scene is intended to convey eludes me.)
Within this context, Kilmer–whose Scott is supposed to represent the solitary soldier that King Leonidas (presumably the monarch of Thermopylae fame) is supposed to have sent to any neighboring state requesting military aid from Sparta (I’m not aware of the source of this anecdote, and maybe Mamet just invented it–after all, he puts it into the mouth of Laura, who’s apparently not much of a student)–tries his best to play the stoic Mamet hero, but he never seems entirely comfortable in the part. (The character, moreover, is hardly the laconic type that a Spartan conventionally represented. In actuality the title would seem more suitable if used as a common adjective rather than a proper one, since the modestly-budgeted, no-frills production might be quite properly described as spartan.) The only other cast member with much screen time is Luke, whose Private Curtis is never fleshed out sufficiently to make him more than a stock figure. Macy and O’Neill are little more than caricatures as two of the president’s men, and Bell seems to have escaped from one of the lesser subplots of “24” as the president’s wayward daughter. Mamet’s direction can best be described as workmanlike rather than inspired; the action moments in particular come across as poorly staged. But Juan Ruiz Anchia’s widescreen cinematography is good, and Mark Isham’s score adds some much-needed tension to the mix.
But coming from one of America’s most dependable writers and intriguing directors, “Spartan” is a serious disappointment. This is one Mamet shell-game that’s not worth laying down a bet on.