When the President’s daughter (Kristen Bell) is abducted from her university campus, it brings the Secret Service (including Ed O’Neill, William H. Macy, and Clark Gregg) swarming in to solve the case before news of the situation reaches the media. Government agent Scott (Kilmer) is a gifted company man who excels in tight situations, and with his wet-behind-the-ears partner, Curtis (Derek Luke, “Antwone Fisher”), he sets off in search of the kidnappers. But all is not what it seems, and as Scott calmly tries to find the girl, his indifference is tested when clues to a greater problem outside of the kidnapping keep dragging him back into the search.
Take a brief glance at “Spartan,” and you will see a fairly standard thriller plot, propelled by a cast who know how to sling suspense. But “Spartan” is born from the mind of Mamet, beloved playwright of “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Oleanna,” and the filmmaker behind “House of Games” and “The Spanish Prisoner.” Mamet is known globally for his hard-boiled dialogue, straight-faced direction, and his gift with twists and comeuppances. “Spartan” is no deviation, reaching even further into the glorious Mamet bag of tricks unseen since his 1991 success, “Homicide.”
“Spartan” is an electrifying thriller, crammed tightly with grade-A material and performances, winding to an airtight ball of suspense that never disappoints. To say it’s Mamet’s best work is stretching (the man sits on a throne of incredible accomplishments), but after flexing his comedic (“State and Main“), swindle (“Heist”), and artistically questionable costume drama (“The Winslow Boy”) muscles in recent years, “Spartan” sucks Mamet back to where he belongs: procedures, tough guy turbo-tongue, and red herrings. Of course, the thriller trappings of the story are done on Mamet’s terms, which translate to a fairly chilly film atmosphere. There are no action set pieces, barely any lighting, and Mamet has elected to drain the fat from each and every scene, leaving characters without names for long periods of the film, and narrative strands that are almost halfway realized before the audience is introduced to them. It’s unsettling, but that’s what makes “Spartan” stand out from the pack. It is decidedly lacking in the “get yer rocks off” department, with Mamet electing to infuse his picture with dread, vividly mounting his story one sequence at a time, and never blowing his opportunities for conflict when traditional lowball filmmaking standards are begging for a breath of fresh air.
The success of “Spartan” is anchored greatly on Kilmer’s performance. I haven’t seen Kilmer this attentive and flat-out dynamite in a long time, and he works double time to make sure each one of Mamet’s T-bone lines is well represented and carefully enunciated. Occasionally, the sweat can be seen on Kilmer’s brow as he figures out how to make this heightened dialog his, but the effort in “Spartan” is more than he’s been giving in the last 10 years of his career, and he’s incredibly solid in a very tricky role of company man turned unwilling protector.
The biggest test of any thriller is its ending. A film can orbit Earth with gonzo plot twists and outlandish motivations, but as long as it lands a forgivable ending, all is well. “Spartan” sets itself up with a complicated situation to get out of, and Mamet delivers an resourceful and satisfying conclusion, which comes as a big relief. “Spartan” is a steady, gripping, and exciting kidnapping tale, reviving a stone-dead genre, if only for a brief moment. It’s one not to miss.Rating: A