A film review by Craig J. Koban
2004, R, 106 mins.
Scott: Val Kilmer / Curtis: Derek Luke / Laura Newton: Kristen Bell
/ Stoddard: William H. Macy / Burch: Ed O'Neill
Written and directed by David Mamet
Is there ever a more sadly underrated talent working in modern films than Val Kilmer?
Before you balk, just consider his enormous range. Heís played everything from The Doorís lead singer Jim Morrsion, the king of porn John Holmes, legendary western figure Doc Holiday, Elvis inspired spoof singer Nick Rivers, a swashbuckling fantasy swordsman named Madmartigan, a blind man who regained his sightÖhellÖhe even played Batman and Billy the Kid! Not too many actors can boast the resume that Kilmer has, and despite his reputation for being professionally flaky and difficult to work with, he remains a great character actor that gets really little critical respect.
If you have any doubts, just look at his work here in David Mametís new
political thriller SPARTAN. Kilmerís
performance as a Special CIA Ops soldier is arguably his best and solidifies him
as a first rate performer. He
carries the piece with confidence, resolve, and an icy, detached, yet forceful
charisma that would make DeNiro or Pacino proud.
Anyone even remotely
familiar with Mametís past work should come out of SPARTAN with nice
reflective smile on his or her face. Nobody
writes great dialogue like Mamet, as his characters donít talk in that dry,
wooden, Hollywood garble that serves no other purpose than to advance the
characters and plot. Mamet is
a magician of colorful, whimsical, quick, quirky, and offbeat dialogue. Sometimes his characters speak in amazingly sparse shorthand,
other times they are capable of displaying an uncanny comical use of four and
twelve letter expletives that takes on a level of offbeat poetry.
If masters like Welles and Scorsese are the geniuses of camera work and
style, then Mamet is the master of dialogue.
When he does it, itís almost a style in on itself.
It has such a unique cadence that, even when characters talk in ways that
donít seem realistic, you are always appreciative of its color, wit, and
As for the film, itís a tight,
brilliantly plotted and well-acted political thriller that flies by in a labyrinthian
maze of deception and double cross.
Itís a real modern film noir, not so much in the sense that its visuals
follows its conventions, but has characters that populate it that never quite
seem who they are. Actually, many of the characters donít even come across as
particularly likeable, as their forcefulness and stone cold determination drive
their motives. The film is really
Mametís first narrative epic. His
previous works seem small compared to the farĖreaching implications of
SPARTAN, which takes its characters all over the world and involves The White
House, The Secret Service, The President, and middle eastern kidnappers.
This is a thinking-manís James Bond flick without the high-tech and
overstuffed special effects.
The plot details the kidnapping of the President's daughter, Laura Newton (Kristen Bell). She is kidnapped from a Harvard nightclub where she is attending classes. Scott (Kilmer) emerges to take on the case, as he is a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails and fiercely determined marine operative. He has a huge hurtle to overcome: he only has 48 hours to locate her before the media learns that she's missing (funny how the media becomes a silent antagonist in the piece). He accompanies himself with a lone sidekick, Curtis (Derek Luke), and begins the investigation.
is one of the least squeaky clean investigators Iíve seen who, along the way,
is never afraid to break arms, violate suspects' civil rights, and even fakes
killings to get the answer he wants. When
he ultimately discerns the real reasons for Lauraís abduction (which I wonít
reveal here) he proceeds in what he sees as immediate closure to his
investigation, but is dealt with layers of deceptions and cons that produce
unforeseen emotional blows.
The enormous pleasure of watching SPARTAN is primarily in how it has the time and patience to develop its story. It's not one of those witless action pictures that feels the need to rush to the next mindless scene where characters are killed and stuff blows up really well. SPARTAN does have action, to be sure, but its more interested in investigating the men behind the scenes as well and allowing them to become the attraction of the film and not the action itself. Most thrillers are driven by action and plot, whereas SPARTAN is driven primarily by characters first and action second.
The early scenes are fascinating as it develops tension and
anticipation even before we are readily aware of who or what the investigators
are looking for. These scenes also
demonstrate Mamet's ingenious use of verbal shorthand with the characters.
They are experts in their fields and donít talk in moviespeak, but
rather in a realistic shorthand. They
say the least amount possible to get their points across because, being experts,
they can read each otherís words before they are spoken, often finishing each
otherís sentences. The dialogue
is stylized, yes, but it gives the film the sort of artistic verisimilitude.
Another aspect that makes SPARTAN so thoroughly entertaining is the way it presents its respective characters. These are not men driven by the motive of doing well and rescuing the Presidentís daughter because itís the ďrightĒ thing to do. They do it because itís their job. They seem emotionally detached, yet completely focused on completing the task on hand. They are more worried about consequences and not the girl. Thatís intrinsically fascinating because the characters emerge less like heroic figures and more like forceful and vigilante warriors.
This is so true of the Kilmer character. Playing him as a straight good guy would have been the wrong
move completely.. He leans into the
people that impede his investigation, and he leans awfully hard.
Heís kind of a weird amalgamation of Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH
meets SHAFT. Kilmer comes across as
assured and convincing in the role, and is capable of easily bursting from his
reserved coolness to exploding on other characters.
He really has no scruples about whom he hurts, and even is shown
threatening women in the film. His
motive is simple: to get the job done, and itís his singular obsession with
that goal that makes his performance an anti-heroic treasure.
The supporting cast is also well
handled. William H. Macey also
shows up (an old Mamet performer) in an odd and surprising performance. You kind of smile when he shows up and seems to just make one
home run after another with that wonderfully sparse Mametian dialogue.
His performance feels like a cameo, but later develops into something
more. Derek Luke is also believable
in his role of Kilmerís partner. Heís
not one of those stereotypical movie partners that is given nothing to do but
follow Kilmerís lead. Heís
allowed to explore with his character and comes across as an intelligent
investigator who genuinely assists with the proceedings.
Even Kristen Bell, as the Presidentís daughter, is surprising in both
her motives and performance. Sheís
not a damsel that needs rescuing, but more of a young woman that needs
reconciliation with her estranged father. Ed
OíNeil also turns in a solid performance as a government official and is
another good character actor thatís better than he gets credit for.
SPARTAN is a real buried pleasure. Itís a film that had an indecently short theatrical life, but itís now on DVD and should be given the attention it rightfully deserves. As a thriller, its expertly plotted and fantastic in how it reveals layer upon layer of deception. It slowly draws you into its intriguing world and develops its story and characters into something more than the genre usually provides. And at the heart of it all is Val Kilmer, turning in a performance that holds the piece together so effectively. Heís just so good in the film that you watch with a feeling of sincere thanks. Kilmer has made some stinkers in the past, but when giving the opportunity, heís capable as being as good as anyone.
SPARTAN is one of the best films of 2004.