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With: Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, Kristen Bell, Lauren Bowles, Andrew Davoli, Steven Greif, Kick Gurry, Moshe Ivgy, William H. Macy, Ed O'Neill, Steven Culp, Saïd Taghmaoui, Clark Gregg
Written by: David Mamet
Directed by: David Mamet
MPAA Rating: R for violence and language
Running Time: 106
Date: 01/31/2004
IMDB

Spartan (2004)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Daughter Falls

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

David Mamet's Spartan is, first and foremost, an exercise in cutting out expository dialogue. Through this device, Mamet ramps up the suspense among the shadow world of politics.

For the uninitiated, expository dialogue is a lazy -- but often necessary -- writer's device that establishes basic facts about who people are and what they do. But it often happens in the context of conversation that real people just would not have with one another. Instead of "Hi," my character might say, "Hello! I haven't seen you since our Tuesday night card game at your mother Jean's house!" You and I already both know what your mother's name is and when we last saw each other, but the viewer doesn't know it, so I have to say it.

Although we rarely know who anyone is or what's going on as Spartan opens, Mamet cleverly keeps us involved. He trusts that a smart audience wants to know what's going on and will watch intently, working with the film to find nuggets of information and truth.

Val Kilmer stars as a Secret Service agent who was once a Marine. He joins an investigation to rescue a kidnapped girl (Kristen Bell), who we assume is the President's daughter. Because she broke up with her boyfriend, died her hair blonde and went to the wrong club at the wrong time, she's been sold on the black market as a sex slave.

Unfortunately, by the time Kilmer and his inexperienced sidekick (Derek Luke) find any clues, a "body" has been discovered and the investigation is closed. Apparently, it's re-election time and this discovery will only hinder her father's campaign efforts. So Kilmer must continue on his own, with the U.S. government trying to stop him.

Ed O'Neill and William H. Macy turn up in small parts, barking orders at people. We can assume that they're bad guys but we don't know what positions they hold or just how powerful they are.

Kilmer gets the most screen time, and he does fascinating things with his character. He hardens himself, continually shocking us with his lack of humanity. This is a man so tough he could beat the hell out of James Cagney. But the real man lurks just under the surface, and we can almost see him. This partially hidden truth works in a parallel course to the film itself.

Mamet has a way of taking even the most ludicrous plots, such as in his recent films Heist and The Spanish Prisoner, and making them appear highly intelligent with his grown-up, staccato dialogue. He's also unafraid to explore the truly dark places in the human psyche. Would those at the top really put power before their own flesh and blood? Mamet seems to answer that question with the brutal bursts of violence in the film. We feel every gunshot like a sting.

Because his scripts are so strong, Mamet hasn't emerged as a great director. He doesn't need to. But as director, he can stick closely to his words without a lesser talent fussing over them. He understands the cryptic nature of Spartan's dialogue and he directs and lights the film to emphasize that. In other words, no one else could have made this film quite as well.

His courage alone is praiseworthy, but fortunately Spartan also happens to be Mamet's most solid and exciting original work since perhaps Homicide.

DVD Details: For some reason, most critics misunderstood this excellent film, and hence audiences stayed away. But it works great on the small screen and hopefully folks will discover it this time around. Warner Home Video's new DVD is pretty basic, with a trailer and optional subtitles, but Val Kilmer provides a sporadic commentary track that almost sounds like a late-night jazz radio DJ grooving to his own riff.

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