- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

“Spartan” stars Val Kilmer as Bobby Scott, a secret agent specializing in lethal prowess and battle-hardened tenacity.

After a reasonably intriguing exposition, “Spartan” devolves into a private struggle. Bobby is a laconic consultant at a training camp near Boston drawn into the search for the president’s daughter, a Harvard coed who vanishes and might be an abduction victim. The internecine clash, ostensibly pitting government agents with sincere and protective motives against government agents with corrupt and hurtful motives, thinly veils the compulsive need in writer-director David Mamet to protect a coldblooded, misanthropic reputation. To the extent that he succeeds, far too well for my taste, the movie starts to resemble formulaic pulp and loses its initial claims on melodramatic human interest and ingenuity.

Two of the trainees Bobby is seen putting through their paces are destined to become sidekicks in the prolonged but unraveling hunt for Laura Newton, the elusive first daughter, rumored during one persuasively alarming stretch to be in the clutches of white slavers and earmarked for prostitution in the Arabian peninsula.

The luridly diverting and tolerable segment of the mystery culminates in Bobby’s encounters with a pair of suspects at a beach house near Essex, Mass., and a subsequent effort to infiltrate and deceive the kidnappers in time to stage a clandestine rescue in Dubai. The plot suffers an irreparable body blow when Mr. Mamet elects to scrub this mission, which would appear to be both obligatory and climactic.

His blunder puts “Spartan” into a tailspin. The valiant Scott is transformed from skilled specialist with a possibly interesting history into overmatched pariah and lone wolf, likely to prevail only if the filmmaker cheats shamelessly. Having made a persuasive case for Scott as a man of action who functions effectively within a national security system, Mr. Mamet pulls a tiresomely perverse and cliched switch, isolating him as the man against the system.

This might be how Rambo got his start, but Scott is unlikely to become a franchise opportunity for Val Kilmer in his 40s.

Quite a few performers get shortchanged because Mr. Mamet is subject to premature mission fatigue and cynicism: most conspicuously, Derek Luke and Tia Texada as ambitious recruits and William H. Macy and Ed O’Neil as federal bureaucrats. The victim eventually surfaces in the person of Kristen Bell, who seems to be doing an impression of Brittany Murphy, the epitome of lowlife starlets in recent years.

It might be instructive for screenwriting classes to double-bill “Spartan” with Ron Howard’s “The Missing,” which also went haywire after generating an effective sense of suspense and urgency about the abduction of a young woman by loathsome flesh peddlers. Students would have a better idea of how to self-destruct in both a period and modern setting. Of course, it’s always a bit of a stretch to believe that Hollywood is passionately averse to flesh peddling, but it might be professionally useful to know how to fake it.


TITLE: “Spartan”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor, including allusions to white slavery)

CREDITS: Written and directed by David Mamet. Cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia.

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes


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