Watching Ebert: Spartan (Mamet, 2004)

This is the next in a series of reviews of films Roger Ebert has given four stars to between the years of 1967 and 2007, inspired by his book, Roger Ebert’s Four Star Reviews.

Spartan is the Hollywood secret agent thriller if Hollywood didn’t treat audiences like they were children who need everything explained to them. It throws you straight into the action and invites you to try to figure out what’s going on– you know, the way it would really be if you walked into a secret agent’s headquarters. Filled with the trademark Mamet dialogue and top-notch performances, this movie is criminally forgotten and deserves immediate consideration.

Scott (Val Kilmer) is a Special Ops agent who is revered and respected by his trainees. He is suddenly pulled away from that in order to help with… well, we’re not exactly sure what is happening when we first walk in. We gradually realizes it involves the Secret Service slipping up and an important girl going missing who needs to be found before the media figures it out. Uh-oh. Scott, who describes himself as a “worker bee,” paid to do and not think, is handed the reins and told to get this girl back under any circumstances. Reluctantly taking one of his trainees with him (played by a young Derek Luke), they plunge into the underbelly of the city. Who has this girl is a secret I won’t reveal. What happens when the media finds out about her I won’t reveal. The way the plot twists and turns I won’t reveal. There is magic in cinema when you have no idea what is about to happen next, and a film like Spartan is a prime example of how that magic works.

People forget, but Val Kilmer is a good actor, even today when he seems to make movies no one watches (the last film I can remember encountering starring him was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang three and a half years ago). He thrives as the tough Mamet archetypal hero, the man who gets in too deep and has to think on his feet to find a way out. Some of Mamet’s favorite fast-talkers like Ed O’Neill, William Macy, and Clark Gregg are all on hand as well, playing the ones in charge– the ones paid to think and tell Scott what to do. Finally, Derek Luke uses some of the same earnestness that carried Antwone Fisher so fluidly and uses it here to great effect. Usually there aren’t many earnest characters in Mamet flicks, and one can imagine how this character of the loyal trainee might have become tiresome, but Luke garners sympathy.

At the end of the day, it’s all about Mamet. There are a number of other Mamet films that will appear in this Watching Ebert series, most of them tales of con men, not ambitious action-thrillers. It makes me wonder, after successes like this film and his TV show The Unit, why he has not had the trust of studio executives to create a smart, big-budget action film. Perhaps budgets are reserved for those who patronize the audience and replicate the effects of successes in the genre that preceded them. It is possible that some will find the trust that Mamet has for his audience, specifically at the beginning, disorienting, and others may find the ending a tad far-fetched. Still, I cannot imagine anyone giving this film less than three and a half stars, and I would give it four and a strong recommendation to anyone hunting for a good DVD to rent this weekend.


Ebert says: “This is a thriller on a global scale… Such a scale could lend itself to one of those big, clunky action machines based on seven-hundred-age best sellers that put salesmen to sleep on airplanes. But no. Not with Mamet, who treats his action plot as a framework for a sly, deceptive exercise in the gradual approximation of the truth.”

Read the rest here.

~ by russellhainline on February 26, 2009.

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