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Wednesday, June 10, 2009
  Under the Radar: Spartan
I’ve mentioned here before how much I enjoy the movies of playwright and filmmaker David Mamet (despite not being terribly familiar with his stage work, aside from the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross, which I love; I’m not much of a theatre guy). I especially enjoy his military/spy stuff – I’m sad that CBS just announced they’re cancelling The Unit, a military drama co-created and produced by Mamet and Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield – particularly because his stylized dialogue turns soldiers and spies into warrior-poets who regularly drop Zen-like koans. One of my favourite movies of his is Spartan, the 2003 thriller he wrote and directed starring Val Kilmer that came and went with almost no fanfare. It’s a perfect candidate for Under the Radar, because a lot of people haven’t even heard of it, and it’s an awesome little movie.

The plot of Spartan is, on paper, relatively standard fare if you’re into shows like 24: the daughter of some big-shot politician (most likely the president, but it’s never made entirely clear; it could just as easily be a particularly famous senator or something) has gone missing, and the Secret Service taps all-purpose badass Robert Scott (Val Kilmer) to lead the search for her, which is on a strict deadline, as the goal is to locate her before the media gets wise to the story. Scott eventually comes to realize that (in true Mamet fashion) there’s far more going on than he initially thought.

One of the things I love most about Spartan is the way in which Mamet lays out the story. The film just unfolds as you watch it. Mamet doesn’t hold your hand, but rather expects you to simply pay attention and figure out the situation and the characters and their relationships on your own. There’s also almost no exposition in this movie, at least not in the traditional sense. The title doesn’t only refer to the Sparta of ancient history (one character makes reference to King Leonidas, probably best known now in pop culture through Gerard Butler’s portrayal of him in 300), but also the broader definition; this is very much a spare, bare-bones movie in terms of storytelling. Mamet never gives you any more than the absolute bare minimum of information you need to understand what’s happening (though this is not to say that the movie obfuscates things or is consciously difficult to follow; it’s not). The reason it’s never clear who exactly “the girl” is the daughter of is that none of the characters refer to her (or her father) by either their names or their titles. The tagline for the movie is simply “She’s missing,” and that’s really all anyone says about it. It gives Spartan an air of realism; we all know that nobody really talks like a movie character (“We must rescue the president’s daughter before it’s too late!”), and neither do the people who populate Spartan.

I love Spartan in part because it makes a point of not explaining certain things that other, similar movies would, though it’s never anything that takes away from the viewer’s ability to follow what’s happening. Most movies would explain the specific background of Kilmer’s character (if he was with the CIA, FBI, Secret Service, Green Berets, etc.), but Spartan opens on him training special forces soldiers, and while he commands the respect of all the senior officers and seems to know them all, it’s also clear that he’s not really a part of the military, at least not anymore and not in any official capacity. Mamet’s style of writing is so specific and stylized that not every actor can handle it, but he’s got a great leading man in Kilmer. (I realize that between my previous Under the Radar entry, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, it may seem like I’m just a huge Val Kilmer fan, which isn’t exactly true; I do like him a lot, but it’s more that he just tends to turn up in smaller, really cool movies.) Kilmer’s relaxed into just being an excellent actor now that the buzz around him being the Next Big Movie Idol has faded. He can just inhabit roles in a way that, say, George Clooney or Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise can’t. In Spartan he doesn’t come off like he’s trying to be cool or tough; he just has the demeanor of a guy who, no matter what’s happening, has been in a situation that was far worse, and managed to walk out of it. He truly carries the movie, if for nothing other than he’s almost literally every scene, and the film is riveting.

If you’re in the mood for a smart, twisty political thriller packed with memorable, quotable lines, check out Spartan. It may not be for everyone – it doesn’t have a lot of “action” in the traditional sense – but it’s one of the best spy thrillers I’ve seen.

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