David Mamet first caught my attention when he did a small grifter film called House of Games. It was released three years prior to The Grifters and I am quite certain that The Grifters took a lot of inspiration from House of Games. The Grifters had a high priced cast and more money was spent on the production but it was not quite as good as Mamet's masterpiece. Later, I would learn that Mamet would go on to write some of the best dialogue in all of film with movies like The Untouchables (just like a Wop, brings a knife to a gunfight), The Heist ( everyone loves money, that's why they call it money) and my favourite Mamet film, Glengarry Glenross ( I make $900,000 a year, that's why...). Mamet has a gift for the way people sound and the way they might deliver a line. Spartan continues his trend of interesting and crisp dialogue and fascinating characters. I have to agree with Roger Ebert when he says that this is Val Kilmer's best performance since Tombstone. He nails the character Scott, to a tee. Where as many action thrillers are about guns and explosions and certain bad acting, this is more about the characters. I am not saying that dumb action thrillers aren't fun sometimes, because they are. But if you like films that treat you like you already know what you need to know, and then proceed to show you things that you don't, then Spartan, like The Bourne Identity, is a film that you should enjoy.
Val Kilmer plays perhaps a member of the Secret Service, or perhaps he is just one of those covert operatives that is so good at what he does that he is just an invisible spook who shows up to do a job that others have trouble with. Mamet has given us a character that is so exemplary and pensive and good at what he does that he is the paradigm that all others in his line of work should emulate. There is no hesitation with him. He is driven and he is serious and like The Terminator, he will not stop, ever, until he has finished the job.
In this film, that job is to rescue the president's daughter, who was kidnapped while the Secret Service agent watching over her claims he was sleeping while she disappeared. But what the real reason is we may never know. There is the possibility that her disappearance may have political ramifications that would go as high up as the President himself. It is learned that Laura Newton may have been kidnapped in a scheme that involves an international sex trade with American women. The kidnappers do not know they have the president's daughter. And that may complicate things.
What makes Kilmer's character so fascinating is the way Mamet writes him. This is a man who has seen much and done much and when the time calls for it, he does not hesitate to use whatever force is necessary to acquire information. He hunts down bar owners, prostitution ring leaders and terrorists. He kills death row inmates to get information, he roughs up middle aged women who hold keys to the case and he holds an extreme form or prejudice towards anyone who may be a link in solving the case. This is a job to Scott and he treats it like that. I think this is the fundamental difference in a film like Spartan and many other less intelligent films that try to glamorize political espionage thrillers. This film talks and sounds like you are literally witnessing what happens behind closed doors. It gives you the feeling that what are witnessing is everything that does not get reported in the papers. This is about as raw as it gets and Mamet can take full credit for writing and directing the film as beautifully as he did and Val Kilmer can be proud of what he brought to the table.
This is one of the best films of the young 2004 and while it will be forgotten soon enough, when it comes out on video, it is a film that must be seen.