Thursday, July 16, 2009


In my quest to watch all things involving Kristen Bell (who played Veronica Mars, my new late night girlfriend as I catch up with that show), I stumbled across Spartan. I remember hearing about its release back in 2004, but even with Val Kilmer's name attached to it, that wasn't enough to draw me in at the time. And thank goodness for that, because I don't think I had the same appreciation (strike that - toleration) for certain styles of movies then as I do now.

Writer/Director: David Mamet
Starring: Val Kilmer, Kristen Bell, Derek Luke, William H. Macy

The type of movie I'm referring to can't be completely nailed down with one simple description, but it is a style of filmmaking with which David Mamet is certainly acquainted. Granted, I do not have an exceedingly large amount of experience when it comes to his films, but I have seen enough to know that he crafts his dialogue like no other. Glengarry Glen Ross, for example, is possibly the most dialogue-reliant film I've ever seen (this being said with full knowledge of the inherent irony in such a statement*). A movie like Redbelt, which hardly anyone remembers, is another solid example of what I mean - Mamet's films are marketed one way (in this case, a martial arts flick) but executed in a completly different manner (in this case, a psychlogical study of a man who lives a life of honor). He deals in shady vocabulary, hiding hints and snatches of information here and there, daring his audience to discover them and put the pieces together. These are not Hollywood blockbusters we're dealing with, and Mamet does not hold our hands through his films - if we're not smart enough to catch on, he's fine with leaving us confused and questioning. Do I like this style of filmmaking? Not particularly - I'd like all my loose ends tied up all the time, thank you - but do I respect the fact that a guy like this makes movies that vary from the typical structure? Absolutely. Diversity is the spice of life...or an old wooden ship. I think that's how the phrase goes.

The plot of Spartan sounds very familiar - the president's daughter is kidnapped and she must be found before the media gets wind of her disappearance. But this film is anything but pedestrian, and soon things get a lot more complicated than initially presented. The surprise death of a main character (aren't you curious now?) and a subplot including an international sex trafficking ring elevate this above your average political thriller. Comparisons can also be drawn to Pierre Morel's Taken, the Liam Neeson action showcase that ripped through theaters earlier in 2009.

At first, I thought Kilmer was only passable in his role as Bobby Scott, the former Marine tasked with tracking down the girl in question. Now that I've had a day to think about it, Kilmer actually excels in the one aspect the Mametverse demands: subtlety. A brash, shoot-first-ask-questions-later character does not belong here, and Kilmer provides the antithesis; he's not a fresh-faced rookie, he's a hardened vet willing to do "anything" to accomplish his mission. He delivers a speech to Curtis (the underappreciated Derek Luke) about how he's a "shooter, not a planner," made more poignant by the fact that he is later forced to step outside of his comfort zone to become a "planner" in order to attempt to rescue the girl on his own. In retrospect, Kilmer actually gives a very remarkable performance, dedicated to his character and easily separating him from any other famous roles he has taken on in the past. As Roger Ebert says, "who else has played Batman and John Holmes?" Other actors fall into the trap of playing themselves in every film - Sam Jackson comes to mind, with the exception of Resurrecting The Champ - but Kilmer's fantastic career choices (including a funny supporting role in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and a great turn in The Salton Sea) keep him fresh and allow him to disappear into his characters without subconsciously reminding the audience we're watching a Val Kilmer performance.

The supporting cast suffered, but not because of their acting ability. Mamet gives the big character arc to his protagonist and leaves the rest of the cast to fend for themselves with little more than exposition to chew on. William H. Macy criss-crosses through the first half of the movie so briefly I wondered if he would speak at all, but he makes up for his vanishing act when he meets up with Kilmer in a shootout towards the end. Kristen Bell brought a level of realism to the kidnapped daughter that and often-annoying Maggie Grace couldn't begin to approach in Taken; Bell was the version of that character who was actually captured, tortured, and went through a sex trafficking ring scarred for life instead of being rescued just in time, unblemished and naive.

(Mild spoilers for the next paragraph only.)

We find out the movie is called Spartan through an interesting scene between the Laura Palmer and Kilmer's Bobby Scott. I'll link to it here instead of embedding it, since it's filled with massive spoilers, but if you're interested in what I'm talking about, fast forward to about the 3:00 minute mark and listen until Kilmer quips "I think we went to different schools." There's a cool parallel between Palmer's story about Leonidas and Scott's position as the man sent to rescue her. Nothing major - I just thought it was a sweet way to weave the title into the film.

You've read this far. Either Spartan is something that sounds interesting to you, or you already know you're skipping it. Either way, I hope we can all appreciate the fact that there are filmmakers out there like David Mamet who refuse to treat us like idiots. Even if these kinds of movies aren't your thing, you should give one a chance every once in a while - your support means they'll still be making movies like this instead of the latest board game adaptation. Perhaps you'll surprise yourself and be capable of enjoying them, instead of just asking "why weren't there any explosions?" Until next time...

*Obviously dialogue is a key component to almost every film, and its importance in a film-to-film comparison is impossible to prove. But if you've seen Glengarry Glen Ross (which I would recommend only for the unique experience), hopefully you'll know what I'm talking about.

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