Pros:Mamet's unique style. Drives forward consistently and interestingly.
Cons:Fails to connect or engross.
The Bottom Line: I really wanted to know what was happening, but didn't actually care that much.
David Mamet (Heist, The Spanish Prisoner) has a deserved reputation as a non-traditional writer/director whose singular style indelibly marks all of his work. With his latest movie, Spartan, Mamet again proves his quirkiness with a unique mysterious thriller.
Although more ambitious than most plots, the premise is not extremely out of the ordinary. The collegiate First Daughter has gone missing, and black ops government agents must track her down before the press unearths the story that could harm her. Val Kilmer plays the soldier of the manhunt, the talented military worker bee who takes orders from a variety of recognizable faces such as William H. Macy, Ed O'Neill, and Clark Gregg. In their search for the girl, Kilmer and company weave through a (perhaps too) winding maze of half-truths that have come to characterize Mamet works.
Because Kilmer, in the lead role, rarely knows more about the investigation than his direct task, the audience sits in a similar situation, never ahead of the story. This ignorance glues the viewer to the screen and causes the hour and forty minutes to zip by at a surprisingly smooth and quick pace. However that same ignorance also prevents the film from making what could have been a deeper connection. With little to no background information on virtually all the characters, there is no emotional investment in anyone. What happens is more important than to whom it happens. The fact that the film still compels despite this is a testament to Mamet's taut script.
His signature almost-but-not-quite-stilted dialogue is less dominant and more accessible than in other pictures, perhaps because of the high-strung nature of the government operations. In common situations though, Mamet's semi-formal words still shine. There is very little cliche dialogue, even in common situations, and what triteness exists is often swallowed by the surrounding originality. Kilmer occasionally falls prey to the easily entangling awkwardness, although that stumbling is not significantly out of character. The supporting cast, many of whom previously worked with Mamet, are stellar in their delivery, particularly Macy and Gregg.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is quite good, as the various effects zoom through the speakers with appropriate timing and spacing. Perhaps most importantly, the complex dialogue is never overwhelmed by the action, which is crucial to follow the story. The video transfer is very good, consistently radiating a dark yet intensely colorful palette that is bold and full, a pleasure for the eyes. Most impressive is the clearness of the many night scenes, where everything is visible rather than lost in the ubiquitous shadows.
Besides the requisite handful of trailers, the only extra is a full-length commentary by Val Kilmer, which is surprisingly good. He mixes a dry sense of humor with intelligent insight into his character and Mamet's style. Other than the occasional lengthy lapses of silence, this is one of the best actor's commentaries I've heard.
Spartan, like many of Mamet's movies, is fully entertaining but due to the slightly off-kilter nature of his work, fails to fully suck in the viewer, piquing interest without engrossing. You truly want to know what happens, but you don't care greatly. Call it 7 of 10 for a good but not great film, worth purchasing only for Mamet enthusiasts.
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