Spartan” (2004) lacks the usual crisp screenplay of David Mamet, who also directs, but its lack of laser-focus might be part of the point here. The film doesn’t announce its thesis statement right away, and because of that, it’s able to deliver late-film surprises not only in terms of plot and character motivations, but also in regard to the whole point of the film.
It starts at a military barracks, with Val Kilmer’s Scott languidly – by Army standards – directing training exercises. Jackie (Tia Texada) and Curtis (Derek Luke) want to impress the sharpshooting legend. Those soldiers will come into play later, but “Spartan” next moves to its main plot: A girl (Kristen Bell, just prior to stardom in “Veronica Mars”) has gone missing. She’s Laura Newton, the daughter of a powerful Congressman.
As “Spartan” explores various issues – from the international sex-slave trade to the incredible lengths politicians will go to maintain their power – it remains a character piece. Scott is intriguingly tough to pin down. Early on, I thought he is not to be trusted; Curtis seems suspicious of him, too. After all, who frisked Laura Newton’s bodyguard, failing to find the gun that allows him to commit suicide?
You can never totally trust a Mamet character, but often it’s the screenplay where the shiftiness is crafted. Here, it comes from Kilmer’s performance as the special ops man. When Scott gets into a pinch, he behaves calmly but strangely – like he’s mentally challenged – so he gives pause to his opponent and buys himself time.
That said, Scott is the central character, and however many twists the plot takes, he ultimately stays on the case of Laura’s disappearance. In addition to changes in plot direction, “Spartan” also takes us around the globe, including Massachusetts and London, and Dubai in the form of the California desert. Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía does a nice job capturing all of these locations.
Bell, meanwhile, gives a wrenching turn as an unloved girl that hints at her future stardom, and I wouldn’t have minded more of her character. Actually, it’s an unusually big performance for a Mamet film; Bell’s work as the calm and collected Veronica Mars has more in common with a typical Mamet character. Luke, coming off of “Antwone Fisher,” is also a compelling presence, and while he has worked steadily, it’s surprising he’s not a bigger name. Other notable actors in “Spartan” include Mamet regulars Ed O’Neill, Clark Gregg and William H. Macy, all investigating the case in some capacity.
Mamet’s screenplay isn’t ultra-tight this time around. While I didn’t notice any plot holes, there are a lot of twists and turns that aren’t specifically explained. It ultimately comes down to someone not being who we think they are. So it’s less of a puzzle compared to other Mamet films, yet it retains the gripping quality that defines his best work. “Spartan” relies on broader surprises and the intriguingly off-kilter turn by Kilmer.