'Spartan' lacks emotion

The Associated PressMarch 12, 2004 

Val Kilmer is out to rescue the president's daughter (Kristen Bell) in a bleak thriller.

When action talks louder than "Mamet-speak," the world of David Mamet is a much less intriguing place.

Building on the broader cinematic palette of 2001's robbery adventure "Heist," "Spartan" continues Mamet's move beyond the pyrotechnic verbal interplay that dominates his earlier films, such as "The Spanish Prisoner" and "State and Main."

Mamet has become a much more visual, big-picture filmmaker, rather than a playwright adapting his stage medium to celluloid.

His characters still talk tough in "Spartan," a bleak, cynical thriller about a clandestine operative (Val Kilmer) going rogue to rescue the U.S. president's abducted daughter, whom no one in the administration seems to give a hoot about.

Yet the action of "Spartan" is so choppy, the transitions so abrupt, and the pacing so deadeningly unvarying, that the movie musters little suspense. Kilmer and his cast mates seem programmed like robots, running thither, barking orders and firing bullets in a series of obtuse plot convolutions that undermine the covert military authenticity Mamet strives for.

The writer-director largely leaves his usual-suspects repertory of performers behind, with only regulars William H. Macy, Ed O'Neill and Clark Gregg along for the ride, all in small roles with little dimension.

"Spartan" is purely Kilmer's story, the tale of an anything-for-king-and-country agent who grows the nub of a soul over his Machiavellian inhumanity as he comes to realize the depths of his government's heartlessness.

Kilmer's Robert Scott is a career military man accustomed to handling the most bloodthirsty tasks. When he's called in on the kidnapping of the president's college-age problem child Laura Newton (Kristen Bell), Scott dispassionately lays waste to any obstacles in his path, with no regard to his victims' guilt or innocence.

The hunt abruptly ends with news that Laura drowned in a sailing accident. The nation mourns and Scott heads home with a shrug, slavishly accepting his superiors' determination that the abduction angle was a wild goose chase.

But Scott's young acolyte Curtis (Derek Luke) has doubts. Based on a couple of slim clues Mamet clumsily injects, Curtis becomes convinced Laura is alive and on her way to a grim, short life in a Mideast sex-slave ring.

After a strangely implausible eruption of gunplay, the doubting Scott also is convinced, determining his commanders would rather sacrifice Laura to conceal unsavory presidential secrets that led to her disappearance.

Scott becomes a one-man strike force in pursuit of Laura, his "Rambo" act pitting him against the government he served so ably and allies he once trusted with his life.

Mamet dialogue often is best spoken stoically, but Kilmer's delivery is so deadpan that the tough, oblique phrasings turn flavorless.

The exchanges are so tiresomely repetitive that they become almost a spoof of Mamet-speak, a harsh, skewed, slangy style of talking without necessarily communicating straightforwardly. Mamet apparently could not get the phrase "Where's the girl?" out of his head, so he lets just about everyone bellow it at least once.

One of the few parleys that truly resonates comes as a character explains to Scott how a king of ancient Sparta would stingily send a single soldier when a neighboring ally requested military aid.

Sounds like a more interesting story than "Spartan."

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