by Matt Smith
Spartan crackles and pops with the trademark electric writing that made David Mamet’s reputation. It is an accomplished thriller that runs full force from the very start. The cast is top-notch and pitch-perfect. It is one of my favorite films from the 2000s.
Val Kilmer plays Scott, a deep cover black ops professional tasked with tracking down the missing daughter of a high-ranking government official. He is partnered up with rookie agent Curtis (Derek Luke), and they uncover a vast conspiracy. The team sent to track down the missing girl is originally meant to serve as confirmation that the girl was killed. But Scott discovers that she is alive and in captivity, and he stops at nothing to get her back home.
One of the things I like most about Spartan is that it doesn’t talk down to its audience. The dialogue conveys just enough information for the characters’ actions and the film’s plot to make sense. Exposition is kept to a minimum. It’s refreshing for a bunch of highly specialized operatives buried deep within the government’s intelligence community speak to one another without constantly defining what they’re talking about because anyone they are talking to already knows what they mean. That might infuriate some viewers, but honestly, with half a brain, you can put two and two together to figure out what it is these people are talking about.
As a mystery, Spartan is enthralling. There is a genuine sense of discovery, no doubt fueled by the sparse script and tight plotting. We know about something at approximately the same time Scott figures it out himself. When the action picks up, we are in it with him, figuring out what in the hell is going on. This sense of “right now” makes the film highly rewatchable. I take great pleasure in watching Spartan even now and seeing all of the elements of its plot come together.
But what really sells me, apart from the strength of the writing, is the cast. As I mentioned before, it’s top-notch. Not only is Kilmer at the top of his game as Scott, we get the terrific Derek Luke, who has yet to land a starring role worth his talent. But as is usual in Mamet films, we get a solid stable of supporting actors to help with some of the heavy lifting. This is no exception. Ed O’Neill, who has been trying to escape the shadow of Al Bundy since the mid-1990s, is great in a small role as the man in charge of Scott’s operation. William H. Macy, Clark Gregg and the always terrific (and always playing a Muslim in Hollywood productions) Saïd Taghmaoui make appearances alongside a lot of other very capable character and bit actors.
I don’t want to give away too much about this movie, because it’s terrific and you guys should all watch it. I feel like I’ve already said far too much about the plot. Oh well.
Wait, I haven’t said anything about how cool this movie is. It’s really cool. Ice cold, chilled – practically arctic. The cinematography by Mamet regular Juan Ruiz Anchía is gorgeous and sleek. And yet when Scott finally tracks down Laura Newton (Kristen Bell), it warms up just a touch to let the characters breathe before their final trials. An absolute must-watch. Spartan is terrific.