Los Angeles Times

Movie review: 'Spartan'

Chicago Tribune Movie Writer

3 stars (out of 4)

David Mamet's newest political thriller takes its name from an allegory involving ancient Greece, but the title also is an apt description of the writer-director's style here: It is (to use the Webster's New World College Dictionary definition) "stoical, severe, frugal, highly disciplined."

"Spartan" takes a routine plot-special operations forces hunt for a kidnapped girl-and strips it down to its essence. Mamet is allergic to huggable heroes, hot extracurricular romances, smirky puns, thrill-ride detours and fist-pumping climaxes.His view of intrigue is far more grim-faced. A girl has been nabbed-a girl of some prominence, we soon learn-and the quest to find her leaves no room for levity.

Mamet being Mamet, the story has far greater repercussions than whether the kidnap victim will be returned to safety. This is a tale of grand conspiracies, formidable forces, shadow warfare; the more that is revealed, the higher the stakes become.

Mamet ultimately pushes these stakes so high that the ominous veers into the ridiculous. The worldview of "Spartan" is brutally cynical, but the movie never makes you feel the requisite shock of, say, "Chinatown." It's a chilly piece of work.

But until it overreaches at the end, it's also tense, taut filmmaking-as well as a step up from Mamet's last thriller, "Heist" (2001). That movie delivered its quotable lines like gift-wrapped presents; it kept inviting you to step out of the movie to admire how smart and witty the writer is.

Like "Heist," "Spartan" includes its share of twists and doublecrosses, but it's so effective in immersing you in its dimly lit, claustrophobic world that you don't sit outside the action pondering how Mamet is trying to con you. The surprises genuinely surprise.

The key characters are Scott (Val Kilmer), an American espionage operative whose superiors count on him to be ruthless without questioning orders, and Curtis (Derek Luke), a special ops newcomer who becomes Scott's protégé. Their mission is to find Laura Newton (Kristen Bell), an abducted Harvard student important enough to merit her own Secret Service detail.

The assignment's urgency is underscored as the politically driven investigator Burch (Ed O'Neill) requests that Scott "go off the meter"-in Mametspeak, to do whatever it takes on a hush-hush basis-to find Laura.

Not a fan of plot exposition, Mamet tells only the necessary information as he reveals the big picture slowly, deliberately, teasingly. And once you think you've found your footing, he pulls the rug out from under you-as well as from Scott and Curtis.

Mamet has filled his movie with actors who know how to deliver his trademark clipped dialogue, including previous collaborators O'Neill, Clark Gregg as a no-nonsense boss type and William H. Macy as a shady Mr. Fix-It who has little to say until the overheated ending.

The cherub-faced but cool-eyed Kilmer is strong if a bit impenetrable as Scott, though that's probably the point, and Luke is the film's warmest presence even as he establishes Curtis' intense drive. Also making an impression is Tia Texada in the one prominent, active female role: Jackie Black, a tough-as-tacks special ops recruit eager to make an impression.

The movie's key catch phrase is "Where's the girl?"-three short words that are repeated by various characters with increasing intensity, as well as menace. Part of Mamet's genius is wringing such nuances out of simple elements.

One may wish that Mamet would apply himself to richer, more thought-provoking material than this skilled exercise in a familiar genre. But if his mission isn't as ambitious as his characters', at least he knows how to stamp it "accomplished."

Written and directed by David Mamet; photographed by Juan Ruiz Anchia; edited by Barbara Tulliver; production designed by Gemma Jackson; music by Mark Isham; produced by Art Linson, Moshe Diamant. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:47. MPAA rating: R (violence, language).
Scott.....Val Kilmer
Curtis.....Derek Luke
Stoddard.....William H. Macy
Burch.....Ed O'Neill
Laura Newton.....Kristen Bell
Miller.....Clark Gregg

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