David Mamet Double Feature – Part 2: Spartan (2004)

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Greetings all and sundry!

DavidMametThis is the second part of the David Mamet Double Bill. If you missed it, check out the review for The Spanish Prisoner (1997) from last month.

Spartan begins without fanfare in the hills and forests of what could be Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Bragg, North Carolina or Benning, in Georgia. As a group of elite multi service elite “candidates” endure day long, often changing exercises for selection into Delta Force. Overseen by a quietly confident Val Kilmer in.

SPARTAN (2004)

SPARTAN2004PosterMr. Kilmer’s “Been There. Done That” pedigree as Master Gunnery Sergeant, Robert Scott seems to be something of a lower tier celebrity at the event. And is sought out by Ranger candidate, Curtis (Derek Luke). And Marine Recon candidate, Jackie Black (Tia Texada), whose specialty is knife fighting. Might keep them in mind. Should the need arise.

That need arrives soon after a telephone call to Scott to be at a certain back road intersection to await a helicopter. To who knows where? Which turns out to be Boston. For a meeting with the Presidential Secret Service detail. A few nameless. faceless political fixers and the President’s Press Secretary, Burch (Ed O’Neil). Who is not long on details as to the current snafu of the men assigned to protect the President’s step daughter, Laura (Kristen Bell) screwed up their shift change. And created a window of opportunity for the Harvard student and wild child a chance to slip away to taste some of Boston’s night life.

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The responsible agent is interrogated and left alone for a moment. Time enough to dig out his his back up piece and take his own life. A major scale altercation ensues with lots of finger pointing and arguments, As Scott is taken aside by Burch and basically given Carte Blanche to track down, find and return the errant daughter.

Scott agrees and slips into a Secret Service uniform jacket and tracks down the few leads available. An older professor. And a rather flaky boyfriend. The boyfriend is braced trying to break into Laura’s mailbox and reveals little. Except that Laura had bleached her signature red hair and headed solo to the seamier, less friendly clubs in town. Scott returns to brief Burch as Curtis shows for backup. Burch gives Scott and Curtis forty eight hours to perform this minor miracle before Laura is noticed missing from classes Monday morning. And a press conference will be required.

The two head off to one club to talk to the bartender. Then the owner, Jerry. Who has better things to do past closing time. Scott exits. Waits and confronts Jerry. Bounces him off a chain link fence. Then a Dumpster, before breaking his arm to get the proper response to Scott’s monotone, “Where’s the girl, Jerry?”

It seems Laura left with some other girls to a down low brothel with connection to human trafficking. Burch tightens up the timeline. Should Laura’s bleach job start revealing red roots. And the bad guys finally figure who and what scale political leverage wedge has been delivered unto them.

Scott, Curtis and a detachment of agents raid the joint. Separate the girls. Corner the madam and gets more leads to follow. A call from a pay phone is traced to an unlikely location. To a beach house in the Hamptons used as a way station for selected chattel. Scott and Curtis arrive down beach from their objective. Scouting ahead of a larger contingent. Curtis takes a sniping position as Scott finds an entrance to the tumbled down shack. Scott finds three armed bad guys. Two Russian. One Middle Easterner. Curtis takes out one through a window. Scott wounds the others and another twist is added. The girl is missing, but left evidence of her being there. Has either been sent, or is en route to who knows where?

Further investigation reveals a name as well. A Lebanese national name Tariq Asani. Who’s in federal custody on kidnapping and sex trafficking charges. And is due for re location along with a felon facing lethal injection. Some heavy duty sleight of hand in the form of a faked gas station robbery allows Scott to off the annoying and useless con facing the needle. Worm himself into Tariq’s confidence in exchange for the prisoner’s sudden freedom. And come up with a final location. Dubai.

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Burch and company are briefed in on Scott’s progress. And Scott heads off to the Hamptons to ask some questions of family staff and house keepers. Finding pay dirt with divorced, older wife and Laura’s mother (Deborah Bartlett) and her Secret Service protector, (Anne Morgan). Who reveal that her husband used Laura’s being at Harvard as a cover for his sexual proclivities. And pulled the protective detail off his step daughter!

Armed with this ammunition. Which could easily upset an upcoming election. Scott is dissuaded by continuous news reports of The First Daughter and professor drowned while sailing off Martha’s Vineyard. Submerges deep off the grid. Wisely spends a large cash advance to recruit Sgt. Jackie Black. Arrange for their transit to Dubai. And the delivery of a large shipping container as a Base of Operations. Plus a chartered flight out to Paris. Before making a final attempt to bring his principal back.

I’ll leave it right here to retain the integrity of spoiler territory.

Now. What Makes This Film Good?

Certainly one of Mr. Mamet’s “busiest” projects. With changes in location too many to mention. Though with a core cadre of character actors doing more than holding their own. As they talk around the problem(s) and objective(s) at hand with some, but not an excessive amount of the writer’s trademark profanity. Chief amongst them, Ed O’Neil and Mr. Kilmer. With the former adding dry gravity to his words. While the latter adds occasional humor to offset by his matter of fact, intimated, sometimes intimidating use of force.

It’s also intriguing to see the ingenuity, coordination and wherewithal of the invisible alphabet soup of the military’s vast covert operations capability. Which can dialed up and brought to the fore. With very few being any the wiser.

Cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia shows a flair for medium range and occasionally shadowy close ups. Taking advantage of Boston’s grimy offerings, And tight, claustrophobic and forgotten back rooms. Then flipping the script with tight and crowded, dusty, sweaty sand stone California sets substituting for Dubai. Solidly backed up by lighting, electrical, sound and stunt crews too numerous to mention.

What Makes This Film Great?

A solid and well detailed look and feel (With the aid of former Arny Command Sergeant Major and Delta operator, Eric L. Haney) at what would later evolve into CBS’s and Mr. Mamet’s television series, ‘The Unit’. With Val Kilmer leading the charge admirably before basically falling off the map. Basically playing someone who is not a “thinker” or “arranger”. But a “shooter”. The guy those in charge send out to negate obstructions and fix things. Hopefully, without accumulating too many arrows in his back!

And in this arena. Mr. Kilmer excels. With a straightforward attitude. Sometimes offset with a dash of charm when required. Backed up by a solid percussion. brass and synthesized soundtrack led by Mark Isham to twist tension through the tale’s compact 107 minutes.

Spartan2004_BillMacyVery high marks also for Mamet stalwart, William H. Macy. Who excels as political Presidential protector, Stoddard. Who doesn’t make his presence known until the film’s final moments. But the wait is well worth the effort!

Author’s Note: Spartan is available in its entirety on YouTube. As well as associated clips and interviews.


Check out Jack’s other posts and reviews


Agree or Disagree? The Floor Is Open For Discussion.

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18 thoughts on “David Mamet Double Feature – Part 2: Spartan (2004)

  1. Ted S.

    I really enjoyed this film, the only thing I thought it could’ve use was a bigger budget because some of the action scenes looked cheap and weren’t well staged at all. That’s probably because they didn’t have the budget to hire big stunt teams to perform those set pieces. But despite its small budget, the movie was very well made and I even like the not so surprising twist and turns.

    1. jackdeth72

      Nice, insightful and succinct perspective, Ted!

      We’re off to a great start.

      The latter action sequences could have used some expansion and flash and bang to wrap the tale up. The build up is well paced, timed and edited. With Mamet’s early trademark of talking around the elephant in the room aiding in tightening the slow simmering tension.

      Another sound infusion of budget. And an extra ten minutes would have raised ths small gem into the stratosphere. Though for low to medium budget entertainment, ‘Spartan’ does fill the bill!

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Ruth:

      Definitely worth queuing up on Netflix or a rental!

      Mr. Kilmer made an art of underplaying his characters. And instantly, briefly losing it. And in this film his talent is writ large. With an indifferent, unblinking, expressionless monotone that seems issued with his uniform and mission orders.

      Also noteworthy for some Mamet “irregulars” well aware of the force of Mr. Mamet’s words and subtle touch adding to the mix.

  2. Awesome review, Kevin. Where was I and how did I miss this little gem? I, too, love Kilmer like Ruth for his ability to vacillate from cool and simmering to expressive and explosive. (I thought he was mesmerizing as J.M. in Stone’s ‘The Doors’.)

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome, Cindy:

      As I understand it. ‘Spartan’ only had limited release in the U.S. back in 2004. Fewer than one hundred screens nationwide its opening weekend. Also don’t remember much of an ad or trailer campaign ahead of time. So, don’t fee bad that it slipped under the radar.

      Which is something of a shame, because everyone involved really deliver. Especially Mr. Kilmer who maintains an intriguing “Doc Holliday” calm. With bursts of scariness that smoothly moves the tale along.

      Excellent catch with Mr. Kilmer’s Jim Morrison! Though not a huge ‘Doors’ fan. Another great, haunted, nearly forgotten performance delivered!

      Nicely, done!

        1. jackdeth72

          No one knows how to hype and advertise a film like Oliver Stone.

          More of an early Stones on up to Altamont fan. Though, I won’t tale away from Mr. Morrison’s talent, publicity and marketing skills to be one of America’s first rock stars. And Mr. Kilmer captured that wide eyed wonder, energy and power of publicity. Then slowly coming off the rails while feeding an insatiable appetite and their limitations magnificently.

          Very high marks for Meg Ryan as muse, lover, recorder and Greek chorus. And her ability to keep up and sometimes get ahead her co-star and surprising good cast. Would like to see her in more of these roles instead of safe romantic comedies.

    1. jackdeth72

      Too true, Three Rows!

      Especially when the role basically fell into Mr. Kilmer’s lap at a restaurant in L.A. where Mamet, Haney and a dew others were discussing the project. And invited Kilmer at a nearby table to join them.

      Mr. Kilmer also went through training at Ft. Benning and Campbell to prepare. Though his mindset and enthusiasm were there from the start. And it shows throughout this near forgotten gem!

      Keep it in mind for the future. I’d love to see your perspective on this film.

  3. I think this is one of the most underrated films of the last 10 years. It certainly has this great air of suspense and intrigue while I think it features Val Kilmer in one of his best performances.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, ninvoid:

      Thanks very much for such a great comment!

      Mr. Mamet has a solid and well earned reputation for creating and maintaining suspense. And in this film its undercurrent is palpable and layered. From above with Burch and the next step(s) needed to contain the situation. And from below in Mr. Kilmer and company moving forward. Though not fluidly or seamlessly in accomplishing these minor miracles as time slips
      away,

      Very good and oddly underrated stuff, indeed. And something all involved can be proud of!

  4. daveackackattack

    Kevin I will have to see this again. This didn’t stick in my mind as well as House Of Games, Things Change or Glengarry Glen Ross although I’m sure I’ve seen those early films multiple times. Even his scripts adapted by other directors such as The Verdict, The Untouchables, Wag The Dog or Ronin stayed with me. Of course it didn’t hurt that he had heavyweights like Lumet, De Palma, Levinson and Frankenheimer respectfully helming those films. His later stuff like Redbelt, Heist, The Spanish Prisoner I just didn’t seem to retain even though I enjoyed them.

    The thing about Mamet is that his twists have become expected. Not unlike M. Night or even Hitchcock. Although Hitch was breaking ground with each successive film so it’s not really fair to go back and say “oh saw that coming a mile away” when you see his films nowadays. The point I’m trying to make is a film like The Unusual Suspects comes out of nowhere from a fledgling screenwriter in Christopher McQuarrie and it works like gangbusters because you never see it coming. You have no expectations. That’s what House of Cards was for me. Such a cool film that came out of nowhere. But once I got into his later films I didn’t buy into them as much because I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I hold back and didn’t invest myself because I was thinking “ok… when’s it coming.” Know what I’m saying?

    I will say this about David… the man can sure write memorable monologues with distinctive dialogue. Along with Chayefsky, Sorkin, Tarantino and maybe William Goldman, he’s one of the very best IMHO. Take the closing remarks scene from The Verdict or the baseball scene from The Untouchables and of course, who could forget the “Always Be Closing” scene from Glengarry Glen Ross. I may be getting jaded the older I get but I gotta give him credit, he sure can still spin a yarn.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, dave:

      A very thorough perspective. As I have come to expect, appreciate and anticipate from you.

      When the stars align and Mr. Mamet waits to set the right tone with words, actors and visuals. The work is very good, indeed. As you noted with ‘The Untouchables’, ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, ‘Things Change’ and ‘The Verdict’.

      I wanted to focus on Mr. Mamet’s use of words in both critiques and posts to shine a long overdue light on his ability to smooth talk around a subject without telegraphing a plot change or twist that is prevalent amongst today’s shorter attention span focused films. And both ‘The Spanish Prisoner’ and ‘Spartan’ have that ability simmering on the front burner.

      Neither is hurting in the cast department. With actors tailored for their words. Where ‘House of Games’, ‘Homicide’ and ‘Glengarry…’ lead the pack!

      We’ve discussed Sorkin before. McQuarrie caught lightning in a bottle with ‘The Usual Suspects’, Nobody does “Message” films better than Lumet. While long, drawn out dialogue between two, three or four principals is solidly Mr. Levinson’s domain.

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome, Alex:

      Thanks very much!

      I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the love ‘Spartan’ has been receiving! A well conceived, thought out and executed film utilizing what is a hand. Made even better with Mark Isham’s soundtrack.

      Mr. Isham caught my attention very early on with his work with Joe Johnston’s ‘October Sky’. And h’s only gotten better with time and later films and television.

  5. Nice find, Kevin, thanks for bringing this to my attention. Sounds like a great film, and that is a really solid cast. I have to admit I’m not as familiar with David Mamet’s work as I would like, though I did love Glengarry Glen Ross and The Untouchables.

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome, Eric:

      Mr. Mamet s a very worthwhile director, writer and producer. And over the years I’ve noticed his fans are divided between pre and post ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’. I wanted to shine a light along the path of how he got there. And ‘The Spanish Prisoner’ and ‘Spartan’ are two prime examples of story, cast and all the other ingredients used in making his kind of magic.

      Thanks for taking the time to sample some of his most notable earlier work. And commenting so generously!.

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