Criminally Overlooked: “Spartan”

March 7, 2010

A couple of things work against David Mamet’s little-seen 2004 thriller Spartan, but the major one is getting people interested in a movie that stars Val Kilmer. Yes, that Val Kilmer. Of course, nobody has a problem with him exchanging sexually-charged banter with Tom Cruise in Top Gun, but outside the bathhouses and locker rooms of the US Navy, Kilmer’s had a decidedly checkered career. And by checkered I mean he’s done some bad movies and he’s done some atrocious movies. He also gained a reputation for being a Nobel-Award caliber asshole on set, and transformed from cruelly-handsome to Orky the land whale. But I urge you to put that aside—or at least remember this is also the guy who played Jim Morrison in The Doors–when considering Spartan, a nifty, suspenseful thriller whose prescience has only grown since it was released.

Describing Spartan as a movie about a Marine racing time to recover the President’s daughter makes the thing sounds like one of those movie’s Netflix keeps trying to foist upon you just because you happened to say that you liked Air Force One. But in the hands of writer/director David Mamet, the mission ultimately becomes a showcase for Mamet’s codes of masculinity and an enquiry into the nature of service and self-determination. It’s also a consideration of the role trust plays in the relationship between those who receive orders and those who give them.

The first third of the film plays out in near-real time from the moment that a Force Recon Master Gunnery Sergeant named Bobby Scott is pulled away from training a group of soldiers competing for a covert unit. After a curious opening in which Scott’s “spooky operator” creds are established and he meets up with recruits Derek Luke and Tia Texada, he’s handed a message that says only “Stand To.” A few hours later, he arrives in Boston, where the Secret Service is scrambling to figure who snatched the President’s daughter from the Harvard campus and how they did it.

This is best part of the film, as it plays out in real-time.  Scott soon establishes himself as an experienced trouble-shooter. He helps the interrogation of the Secret Service agent who was supposed to be watching the daughter by punching him in the mouth. He interrogates the daughter’s boyfriend by impersonating campus security. Soon enough, he’s put on to a sleazy professor who may or may not have had something to do with her disappearance. The professor most certainly had been frequenting an underground bar where young girls are used as chattel, and pretty soon Scott and his Secret Service handlers are up to their asses in the plot of Taken. Unlike that film, however, Spartan takes a wrenching turn midway through the second act, forcing Scott to re-evaluate his allegiances, his choices, and ultimately his own sense of agency.

If Spartan sounds a lot like Mamet’s TV venture The Unit, well, it might well have been a dry run for that project. But unlike that show, whose philosophy is basically “dudes with guns=good, everyone else=nominal,” Spartan is more concerned with the increasing rift between those that make the wars, and those that fight them. In end, Spartan suggests, that rift threatens to swallow all of us.

Spartan subtly keeps this theme in the foreground with a lack of specificity about the characters that never really clicks until you’re considering it afterward. Scott probably isn’t Val Kilmer’s name, but no one questions that. The daughter is almost exclusively referred to as “The girl.” Any number of White House big wigs are never given names and/or titles. The overall effect is one of creeping depersonalization which stands in contrast to what should be a deeply personal dilemma which is playing out before us.

Early in the hunt, Scott tells Burch, the lead investigator (his actual position in the administration is never made clear, and he’s played by an excellent Ed O’Neil), “My job is get the girl back. And there is nothing I will not do.” In a way, most of Spartan is about Scott living up to that phrase. Early on, we think we know what that entails, as Scott must do something horrific to gain a thin lead on the girl’s whereabouts. What we don’t realize that we haven’t seen anything yet.

Mamet has assembled a great group of solid actors. Alongside Kilmer and O’Neil, we get a terrific Tia Texada (who encapsulates Mamet’s sense of gender politics when she asks Scott for something “man to man”). The always-reliable William H. Macy morphs into a Master of the Universe as the President’s campaign adviser who, it is made clear, pulls everyone’s strings. As the movie’s holy grail, Kristen Bell makes her spoiled, damaged First Daughter credible and almost sympathetic.

Mostly, though, what’s interesting about Spartan is the tangled knot of its politics. Mamet is clearly a fanboy of special forces and elite units, but not so much the Executive Branch. Made as the Iraq War was spiraling from success into bloody chaos, it is easy to see the film as an attack on the Bush Presidency. Except that the President as described sounds more Bill Clinton. Ultimately, Mamet seems to be asking the audience to consider what happens when the tools of our country’s military policy become self-aware. For all Scott’s admonishings that he’s just a “worker bee,” he goes off the reservation like a true lone wolf at the end.

On top of all that, Spartan is an exciting tense thriller. The action scenes are authentic and the gunplay pretty realistic. The investigation is propulsive with a headlong velocity that easily carries the viewer through the admittedly logy second act.

I’ve never actually come across anyone else who’s seen Spartan, and that’s too bad, since it makes for great viewing on DVD on a rainy Saturday afternoon or whenever. I caught it in the theater at an 11:30 showing. Then I took the subway home at, like 2AM. That’s really apropos of nothing. I’ve run out of stuff to say. Go see Spartan.


  1. I saw this in the theater when it came out, AND I have the DVD.
    Oh, that hiding in a shipping container were that easy.

  2. Oh, yeah, I’ve seen it and have the DVD. There’s a great bit of dialog when Kilmer is mentoring a younger soldier. They’re in Copley Square in Boston and notice the local cops moving in on them. Kilmer says, “In the city, always a reflection. In the woods, always a sound.” “What about the desert?” the younger soldier asks. “You don’t want to go in the desert.”

    Among gun & weaponry buffs, there was some debate about Kilmer’s knife, IIRC.

    • And then William H Macy has a great callback to that line at the end when he shouts at Kilmer, “We were going to take her to the desert!” IMFDB has some speculation about the knife.

  3. Val Kilmer’s dvd commentary is one of the most amazing things I have ever listened to.

  4. This is an absolutely fabulous movie on so many levels. Well done review here. There is more to it however. Spartan is a philosophical rendering of a secret op. It is deep, fun, laced with riveting tension and made with delicacy. It is also written in a style best described as theatrical, a style sometimes poorly translated on screen and this is my guess as to why it failed at the box office. Either that or it was not properly promoted. Spartan is an intellectual’s thriller and the note above by Geoff is excellent. Those little tidbits of dialogue along with the excellent performances, casting and even music, make this one of my favorite films.

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