David Mamet is renowned for his fantastic dialogue, and you’ll find his name on some of the sharpest scripts in town. And it’s not only his dialogue that sparkles, it’s not unusual to find some pretty dense plotting and intelligent twists wound throughout his movies. His name has long been one I associate with a genuinely intelligent movie - something all too rare in these times of bigger better blockbusters - so to say I was rather anticipating Spartan would be an understatement, even if it is a Val Kilmer movie.
Kilmer stars as an Army Ranger, wait, a Secret Service Agent, no, a mercenary maybe? Maybe he’s been them all at one point or another, one thing’s for sure, everyone seems to respect him, and if he asks for something, it gets done, if he needs something, it’s there. So when a politician’s daughter disappears from her dorm room in the middle of the night Kilmer is the first person called in. There should have been security, she should have been watched, so is it a kidnapping, an inside job, is it a boyfriend with a chip on his shoulder? Grabbing himself a green partner (Derek Luke) he’s straight on the case, and he doesn’t have time to waste, this girl is America’s sweetheart, and if she doesn’t turn up for classes Monday morning the whole world is going to know she’s gone, and once the press is involved, these things have a habit of getting... messy.
The first thing you’ll notice about Spartan - and this will probably be no surprise if you’re at all familiar with Mamet’s direction - is it doesn’t waste any time. Not just getting into the thick of the story, but any time, ever. Every line of dialogue has a point, this isn’t a script you could trim down to shorten the running time (not that you’d need to) it’s precise, to the point, curt even. Mamet’s writing style always brings to mind Get Shorty - specifically as John Travolta’s Chilli Palmer goes to reclaim his leather jacket, “Don’t worry, I won’t say any more than I have to. If that.” In the wrong hands that style is a dangerous thing, I recall being tortured by Mamet’s otherwise engaging The Spanish Prisoner by Steve Martin’s inability to grasp the proper rhythm of the script, but thankfully Kilmer has no such problems. As an actor Kilmer constantly surprises, usually with his ability to squander his talent on rubbish, and his name is all too often something to be feared on a movie poster, but between this, The Salton Sea, and Wonderland, I’m starting to have faith in his name once again.
Here he’s a man with a job to do, and he does it in a startlingly cold fashion. The only thing that’s important is the girl, rules broken mean nothing, lives lost are unimportant, Kilmer is merely an instrument designed for a job. At least that’s the way it should be, but as things take a turn for the unexpected he finds himself torn between his orders and what he knows is the right thing to do. It’s easy enough to just keep your head down and do your job when you can say there are forces at work you don’t understand, you’re not the decision maker, without the big picture how can you know the right thing to do. It gets harder to hide when you do know the reasons behind the decision, and know what is asked of you is the wrong thing to do.
With Kilmer delivering the script so well Mamet's style works perfectly for the movie, as you end up being dragged along by the story, with it moving so fast you rarely have a chance to overtake it, to out-think it. It changes location at the drop of a hat, targets are suspected, identified, and taken down at a breakneck pace, you never know where the story will go next, and just when you think you have an idea of the target of the plot you realise that the particular thread is over. It’s sad to say, but it’s becoming unusual to find a thriller that is actually thrilling, but Spartan never has a problem keeping you gripped and keeping you guessing and as such is one of the most entertaining thrillers you’ll have seen in some time. Without resorting to Hollywood bravado, without calling in the helicopters, without making sure every scene is the most spectacular it can be, Mamet draws genuine thrills from a raw, engaging, script, succeeding by dazzling your mind instead of your eyes and ears.
Presented anamorphically in a 2.40:1 ratio Spartan looks very good on DVD. The picture is usually very sharp, though there were times where some haloing was present in scenes of high contrast, but it is minimal. Detail levels are high and blacks are solid, making it overall a very pleasing, if imperfect, transfer.
Although the track is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, you’ll be hard pushed to find activity from the rear speakers. The front sound-stage is quite active, showing good separation and there are good bass levels present throughout the film, but this certainly isn't a showy track. It’s just a shame the rear speakers are so poorly utilised, even when they really should have been brought into play.
Commentary from Val Kilmer
Much like his character, Kilmer seems to be a guy that doesn’t talk more than need be, and this is a commentary filled with silence. Of course that makes it a hard listen, but it’s a shame he doesn’t have a co-commentator to keep him moving as he does have a lot to say about the film. He has a very dry sense of humour, and it’s often hard to tell if he’s being serious, for example, he talks about how much footage Mamet cut from the film, saying he doesn’t understand why Mamet removes all his best work. Of course it’s possible that Mamet constructs much of the film in the editing room, snipping away until only what is necessary remains, or it could be that he shoots so little that doesn’t make it onto the screen that Kilmer is being ironic, he really is so dry you have no clue much of the time, though as the track goes on he does get more and more sarcastic, and actually rather funny.
Spartan is a fantastic thriller, it’s not the most original plot, but the execution of it is unique - nobody writes them like Mamet, and as a director he seems to take giant leaps with each film. His last - Heist - was good, but Spartan is far better, and highly recommended. The disc couldn’t be much barer, with only a trailer accompanying the patchy commentary, but sadly that isn’t unusual for Mamet either, so don’t hold your breath for a better edition of this gem any time soon.