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"SPARTAN"
(2004) (Val Kilmer, Derek Luke) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Suspense/Thriller: A covert military operative and his young protégé attempt to find and rescue the kidnapped daughter of the President of the United States.
PLOT:
Robert Scott (VAL KILMER) is a veteran military officer who trains young recruits such as Curtis (DEREK LUKE) and Jackie Black (TIA TEXADA) in the ways of working at the highest levels of covert government operations. His expertise means he's called in when it's learned that Laura Newton (KRISTEN BELL), the daughter of the President of the United States, has been kidnapped. Working with top government men such as Stoddard (WILLIAM H. MACY) and Burch (ED O'NEILL), Scott sets out to find out what he can and retrieve the young woman.

With Curtis serving as his assistant, Scott determines that Laura, who recently and dramatically changed her looks, was abducted by forces working for imprisoned sex slave ringleader Tariq Asani (SAID TAGHMOUI). Armed with the knowledge that they don't know who they've kidnapped, Scott springs Asani from prison custody, hoping to find out where Laura's been taken. Things go completely awry, however, ending with news reports of Laura's death.

Scott thinks the case is closed, but when Curtis reveals he spotted an important clue that contradicts that report, the two covert operatives set out to find and rescue the girl.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
The fun thing about plays and films penned by noted playwright, screenwriter and director David Mamet is that they usually possess smart or at least smart sounding characters that are unlike what most other writers produce. They also speak dialogue unlike anything most anything else written or spoken by fictional or real people.

The bad thing about plays and films penned by noted playwright, screenwriter and director David Mamet is that they usually possess smart or at least smart sounding characters who speak dialogue unlike anything most anything else written or spoken by fictional or real people.

Although the writer and filmmaker has his legion of diehard fans who will argue otherwise, that very dichotomy is what makes many of his works so frustratingly fascinating (or is fascinatingly frustrating). The characters and their manner of speaking (not only in terms of chosen words but also delivery and rhythm) set his work apart from many of his contemporaries (and predecessors).

Yet, those very qualities also make the knowledgeable viewer wonder whether all of that will work in a congruous fashion -- as occurred in his comedy "State and Main" -- or feel artificial and forced as was the case in the otherwise good "The Spanish Prisoner."

His latest work, a suspense/thriller by the name of "Spartan," alternates between the two. For some of the time, it works great and the barebones approach of storytelling -- where we don't know character names, motivations or what's exactly occurring -- makes it all the more fascinating.

At others, however, the dialogue and its delivery sticks out like a sore thumb. The result is a moderately engaging effort that poses some interesting "what if" questions and contains some terrific moments, but also suffers from those typical Mamet problems and others.

As the film opens, we see Val Kilmer ("Wonderland," "The Salton Sea") -- once again at the top of his game -- playing some sort of military trainer running some fresh recruits through the paces for an unknown assignment. He's then whisked away to deal with an unfolding situation that thankfully isn't spelled out for us right away.

The lack of identifying names, roles and the details of the event immediately lure us in. All we really know is that a girl is missing (reinforced by many characters repeating -- near ad nauseam -- "Where's the girl?") and that Kilmer has arrived to save the day.

There are few character niceties on display here as everyone is steadfastly determined to resolve the situation as fast as possible at by what appears to be any means and costs deemed necessary. That -- and the production values -- gives those characters and the overall film a gritty aura where one is hard pressed to figure out what's going on and/or will occur.

Things are eventually explained -- all in due time -- and the film then begins to unfold much like a regular detective thriller where the "heroes" try to figure out what happen and rescue the victim from the villains before it's too late.

Notwithstanding the dichotomic dialogue, all of that works rather well for a good bit of the film. Then certain developments are dropped in -- that I can't really delve into too far without giving away some of the surprises -- that undermine the effort. One completely belies the operating procedure that Kilmer's character has followed up to that point and really only serves as a complication that could have been accomplished in a more believable fashion.

Another deals with a rather hokey revelation by a minor character regarding the victim, while the worst comes near the end where the villain goes through the standard "spill the beans," revelatory procedure while slowly trying to find and kill the others.

While Mamet makes it sound more intelligent and not quite so verbose in spelling out every single detail, it nonetheless won't sit well with those who see it as an overused and lame storytelling device designed to explain things to the clueless.

If that's not bad enough, it unfolds in front of witnesses who are obviously equipped with the means of repeating what they hear to the world. Considering who's doing the talking and what they're saying -- again, I won't go into specifics -- it's unlikely they'd allow this to occur. Considering what they've already done and are attempting to do, a few more bodies wouldn't seem to make any difference in their book. A few plot tweaks here and there (no "this is the reason" speech and/or witnesses) could have easily remedied the problem, but for some reason Mamet didn't seem to think it was one.

Beyond being yet another hokey moment in an otherwise "realistic" film, what that moment achieves is killing what little suspense the film has managed to generate. For some reason, the overall find and rescue mission just isn't that thrilling and there's no growing sense of urgency or momentum, despite what's at stake and the obstacles thrown into the rescuers' path. At times, the film the work worked rather well for me, and then would begin to falter and lose its footing as well as my interest, only to regain both later on.

The result is a bit frustrating as there are some decent moments and the overall cast is rather good. Kilmer's always had an aloof, "Mr. Cool" aura about him and it works well for his character here. Derek Luke ("Pieces of April," "Antwone Fisher") and Tia Texada ("Phone Booth," "Glitter") are solid as his green rookies.

William H. Macy ("The Cooler," "Seabiscuit") and Ed O'Neill ("The Bone Collector," "The Spanish Prisoner") have their intensity jets set to "afterburner" while Kristen Bell ("Pootie Tang") is okay as the kidnapping victim. There really isn't much character growth to speak of -- Mamet doesn't seem terribly interested in that -- so the performers pretty much just have to maintain their initial characteristics and character goals.

I'm giving the film a marginal recommendation simply because there's enough present to like or at least appreciate as compared to moments that don't work or problems that get in the way of its success. Not the best Mamet work by any means yet clearly not his least satisfying, the film features various tangents or examples of its title in its characters, plot and storytelling style. I just wish that "Spartan" worked better than it does. The film rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed March 8, 2004 / Posted March 12, 2004


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