DVD Review of Spartan

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/11/05


  For some reason David Mamet has been wildly overpraised as 1st a playwright, then a filmmaker. This is not to say that heís not good, & better than typical playwrights & filmmakers, just that heís not nearly as good as others think he is. Spartan is a good example of typical Mamet- better than your typical thriller, yet still missing something.

  The film stars the up & down Val Kilmer as a man named Scott- 1 of the peripatetic Men In Black sorts who freelance dangerous work for assorted government agencies. The thrust of the film is the mother of all urban legends- that many pretty, white (especially blond) young women, are kidnapped off the streets & sold into white slavery overseas. While, on occasions, there have been cases of this, they occur once per decade. More usually American girls who hook overseas do so by choice because the country they practice in has legalized prostitution. This film, however, ties white slavery in with the current anti-Moslem paranoia. Iím as anti-Moslem as the next American (as well anti-all religions), but the plot of the film is absurd. The daughter, Laura Newton (Kristin Bell), of a powerful political figure (of unknown rank) has been kidnapped. Scott goes through a series of seemingly related, but mostly red herring, adventures that sees 2 of his sometime partners killed, Curtis (Derek Luke), & sexy Jackie Black (Tia Texada). The daughterís disappearance can only be covered up so long before the media will have at it, yet it may be the politician wanted his daughter to be kidnapped. A cover story that she drowned at sea is concocted.

  A series of bizarre scenes occur- the daughter refuses to return home after Scott singlehandedly rescues her from an Arab country, tempts him to suckle her nubile breasts, & then a supposedly Ďgoodí character, Stoddard (William H. Macy), turns out to be on the side wanting to Ďsilenceí the daughter- for what & why the audience is clueless. What is his, or the politicianís motivation? Politicians & pimps are slime- whatís the point? Another point of irritation is the deliberate use of night to sort of invoke film noir. In truth, most modern noirs are not noirish- the darkness must come from the insides of the characters, not just their living in a world of shadows. Typical of this conflation, & failing is the use of Ed OíNeill (tvís Al Bundy) as a hard-boiled cop named Burch. He has a few minutes early in the film, & then gives a pompous speech for the cameras at filmís end, after the return of the daughter- is he a good guy or bad guy? What was his motivation if a bad guy- as the tenor of the scene seems to indicate.

  The only surprise to the film was how murky the narrative was- that which can be discerned easily is, while that which isnít has no discernible answers in the margins of the film. The dialogue- the supposed strength of Mametís films, fails. The characters engage in such oblique technospeak that the viewer is lost. That would not be bad if the narration made sense. Most reviewers have taken the daughter to be the 1st daughter- a Chelsea Clinton type, but given the glare of the media this cannot be the 1st daughter- the plot is so implausible as to be silly. More likely itís an Ambassadorís daughter. Then, why the urgency? & why would the politician send his henchman, Stoddard, to do in his daughter?

  Worse, the acting is nothing special. Kilmer phones in his most generic performance since Heat, while the rest of the bit players are cardboard cutouts. Curtis, the black sidekick, of course, dies, as does Jackie Black, at filmís end. Whatís odd is Scottís reaction to her death- so over the top it implies they were once lovers- an element that was not hinted at in the film. Itís good that such a tale hasnít the obligatory love story, but to tack it on at the end seems bizarre.

  As for the DVD? Thereís really not much, except a commentary by Kilmer. Itís horrid. His speech is slow, often slurred- as if he was coming down from a high. What he tells us, then, is not anything of real relevance to the action, nor even about making the films. Having heard Kilmer speak before on commentaries & in interviews 1 gets the distinct sense that he was rooked into being the 1 to do the commentary. He patently does not seem enthused by the film nor his task of guiding the viewer. Given that he presented such a blasť film, spotty narrative, & generic dialogue, it would seem mamet should at least attempt a mea culpa, however sotto voce, by explaining what the hell is happening, & why. Instead, Kilmer rambles on about men like Scott, & how their lives are so cool & dangerous, & what patriots they are. Pass the bong, Dude!

  Overall, Iíd say take a pass & watch the original The Manchurian Candidate. At least there the good & bad are delineated. In Spartan gray is its rapture, & what forms it no rainbow.

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