Writer/director David Mamet unsuccessfully tries his hand at a political thriller about a military officer recruited to rescue the president's abducted daughter. Even though there are few intriguing twists, Mamet's aloof style is ultimately ill-suited for the genre.
Hardened by years of brutal but loyal military service, special ops officer Robert Scott (Val Kilmer) is assigned to find the president's apparently kidnapped daughter, Laura Newton (Kristen Bell). Pairing up with his protégé Curtis (Derek Luke), Scott works diligently with a task force of presidential advisors, the Secret Service, the FBI and the CIA to find her, and through their investigation, they stumble upon a white slavery ring in the Middle East, which may--or may not--have some connection to Laura's disappearance. The straightforward search-and-rescue mission is soon bogged down in political machinations, and the girl's abduction starts to look even more suspicious than it did at first. In fact, the mission comes to an abrupt halt altogether when the girl is supposedly found drowned from a boating accident. Scott returns to his quiet life, until Curtis shows up and proves that Laura is still alive and most likely trapped in the white slavery ring. In a race against time, Scott and Curtis embark on their own unofficial rescue mission--and put themselves at the center of a dangerous conspiracy that goes all the way to the top of the U.S. government.
Val Kilmer probably won't be joining Mamet's dedicated circle of players--which includes Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy and Mamet's wife, actress Rebecca Pidgeon--any time soon. While it's clear Kilmer took the role to work with the talented writer/director, he isn't well suited to deliver ''Mamet-speak''--the rapid fire delivery of terse dialogue the writer is known for--and Kilmer looks uncomfortable trying to do it. The gifted actor, who can't help but bring in his own quirky sensibilities to the part, still hits the nail on the head as steely, resolute Scott. But the minute he starts dispensing sage advice--Mamet-style--Kilmer sticks out like a sore thumb. Same goes for Luke (Antwone Fisher) who is entirely miscast as Scott's sidekick. Others in the ensemble, however, handle the Mamet chores more adeptly, including Macy and Ed O'Neill (yes, the guy from TV's Married ... With Children) as presidential aides.
Spartan's real problem, however, is that it's a thriller without much thrill. Mamet's expertise is in creating scenarios within a microcosm, whether it's a world of con artists (House of Games; The Spanish Prisoner), salesmen (Glengarry Glen Ross) or even showbiz (State and Main). These Mamet films are even-keeled--almost devoid of emotion. He sets up characters and actions relevant to that particular world, so when characters spout lines in Mamet's distinctive style, it comes off as perfectly natural. Yet, with Spartan, Mamet is tackling a bigger, grander picture, and when his style is applied to the world as a whole it doesn't work. Plus, in the thriller genre, the audience needs to feel invested in the characters, and Mamet's distant, unemotional style doesn't lend itself to sending the audience's collective hearts racing. The only poignant moment in the film belongs to Bell, as the wounded daughter who just wants a little attention from Daddy, and the only truly exciting moments are during her rescue. That said, however, Spartan proves Mamet still knows how to craft a story. Although the script is, at times, vague and convoluted, it thankfully never falls into any of the genre's usual patterns, and it throws in enough twists to keep you on your toes.
As a thriller, Spartan will hold your attention, but unfortunately writer/director's David Mamet's style doesn't fit well in this milieu.