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SPARTAN

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, William H. Macy, Ed O'Neill
Director: David Mamet
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 107 Minutes
Release Date: June 15, 2004

“The girl is alive, sir. I SAW THE SIGN!”

“Then you are truly blessed.”

Film ****

I have no idea how or where David Mamet gets ideas for the stories he writes and translates to film. The veteran filmmaker/playwright has long been known for creating stories for different film genres. Mamet's covered every area on the map, from comedy (State and Main) to drama (Glengarry Glen Ross) to suspense thriller (The Edge), and that's just a small sampling of his track record. Though the aforementioned films are each individual successes, Mamet's latest piece, the political thriller Spartan, may just be his best film yet.

Mamet's one of very few screenwriters in cinema who is able to create of world of their own through the words on the page. The strong dialogue that powers its way in his stories has been a long trademark of Mamet's. I can easily believe that his style of writing could've have influenced someone like Quentin Tarantino, who writes his words in a similar way.

Spartan is a pure triumph, and is easily ranked with the very best of Mamet's work. It's a film for those who appreciate substance over style, though the style is equally noteworthy. As only a writer like Mamet can execute, what could be easily made into yet another formulaic plot; that of a search for a kidnapped girl, plays out and unfolds in such a strong, unexpected way. It doesn't play the safe way by revealing everything too quickly; instead it takes it time and reveals what it needs to in a flawless fashion. It's inventive plotting every step of the way, which elevates this film above conventional standards.

The film stars Val Kilmer in one of his most superb performances yet as Robert Scott, a special ops agent who in the opening of the film is running a training exercise in a remote military outpost. The series of exercises will result in the recruitment of a new addition to his secret unit. Before long, Scott is removed from the training field and ordered to meet up at his agency's undisclosed location to be handed a new assignment.

His latest orders are to help in the search for a kidnapped girl, and a most important one, because she happens to be the daughter of a high-level political figure, in addition to being a Harvard student. It's never revealed if she is, in fact, the president's daughter, but assumption is easily welcome. The reason for her kidnapping is unknown, but Scott, who's been assigned to get her back by any means, eventually comes to learn that the abduction is far from anything even remotely political.

Scott is given a 48-hour deadline to make a discovery, up until which point word will likely reach the media. He is paired with a newly assigned rookie recruit named Curtis (Derek Luke), fresh from the training fields, and the search begins. Scott is a man of his word when he promises to locate the girl, and he isn't afraid of applying a few dirty work-techniques to prove it, for which he is forced to do a good bit of.  

In respects to you, dear reader, that's about as far I can allow myself to go in terms of plot revelation. I can tell you this; Spartan has a unique numbers of unexpected unravelings as the plot progresses. Scott and Curtis find themselves in different locations at any given second, where another unexpected discovery is there waiting to be found. And even at that point, the mystery is way far from revealing itself.

Mamet's films always seem to attract the right actors for the roles, and Spartan is a superb example. Kilmer, who has resorted to smaller fare in recent years, is so right in this role. He is thoroughly believable as a man who is at the top of his craft, very resourceful, and yet is somewhat uncertain of who he can actually trust. Scott is a military op, and perhaps the best, and yet the role is handled in the most believable fashion instead of going for a safe action hero route.

Derek Luke, of Antwone Fisher, hits the right notes perfectly in a role that would've easily been a throw away role in another movie. His character is a rare example of just how smart and observant a rookie agent can be. His Curtis is the perfect match to the veteran Scott, and he and Kilmer have many memorable exchanges.

Spartan is far and away one of the first great offerings of 2004, so much to the point that I've already promised it on my ten best list at the end of the year. I was fortunate enough to catch the movie in theaters during its unfortunate here-and-gone run, and was so disappointed to see such a remarkable piece of entertainment get severely overlooked. I'm hoping that its run on DVD will ignite something of a following amongst filmgoers.

Spartan is a mesmerizing political thriller, alive in its every frame, and superb in its every development. A sorely underrated film, I'm here to tell you that this is a film just waiting to be discovered.

Video ****

Warner, never a studio to produce a failure in a DVD presentation, keep their winning streak alive with this superb anamorphic transfer. The film, which was thankfully offered in widescreen only, does have a strong sense of style, which every thriller should, and the level of image clarity and overall detail given to help illustrate this is flat out stunning. The film has an abundance of nighttime sequences, all of which are handled marvelously. Colors are superbly natural and displayed, in addition. WB has hit another DVD home run, once again.

Audio ***1/2

The thriller setting allows the 5.1 mix to deliver in countless ways, resulting in a purely absorbent presentation. Dialogue is delivered in an ultra-strong crisp level, the strong score provided by composer Mark Isham is extremely well handled, and although the film may not be frequent with action scenes, the few instances it does offer, particularly the climatic scene, become all the more effective through this dynamic handling of audio. Very well done!

Features **

The disc includes a theatrical trailer and a commentary track with Val Kilmer, which is both informative and much humorous.

Summary:

David Mamet manages to reinvent expectations of a particular kind of genre film, and Spartan is by far the best example of this notion, as well as one of the best films of the year. It's a riveting and remarkably paced piece, packed with character, never ending suspense, and marvelous Mamet dialogue.