Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Spartan

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

SPARTAN

7/10

USA 2004 (copyright-date 2003) : David MAMET : 107 mins

After two comic mis-steps, Mamet finds his feet with a gripping, twisty thriller where his trademark stylised dialogue fits just fine. Perhaps his best picture to date… so why no proper release?

A film the studio wanted to get off its schedule as quickly as possible, Spartan was horribly mis-marketed by Warner Brothers from day one. The studio clearly had no idea how to advertise this intelligent, adult thriller, so they dumped it in a platform release allowing it neither to build buzz from the art house crowd or to at least make small waves with a wide release. If Spartan, the most mishandled movie of the year, had debuted on the festival circuit and built some buzz, it would have been an Indie hit. By stranding it between audiences (is it an art movie or a Val Kilmer action movie?) it’s merely one of most unjustly overlooked films in a long time.
Brian Tallerico, UGO Screenwriter’s Voice

In the city, it's always a reflection - in the woods always a sound.As Mamet would be the first to point out, like nearly all ‘either/or’ questions, Tallerico’s question – is it an art movie or a Val Kilmer action movie – is fallacious. The answer is ‘both’. This falling-between-stools presumably explains Warners daft strategy, which extended to the UK – the film received a strictly ‘bare bones’ form of contract-fulfulling ‘nationwide’ release: one week in a handful of cinemas, with none located between Glasgow and Sheffield. Which meant a 260-mile roundtrip drive for this critic between Sunderland and the latter venue in order to catch Spartan on a big screen. And this despite my lukewarm reaction to Mamet’s previous picture Heist (2001) and positively stone-cold dislike of 2000’s State and Main (2000).

So why did I go out of my way for Spartan? An unexpected rave-review from top net-critic Mike d’Angelo for one. Second, the trailer in which William H Macy delivers the line “We would have let her go, but you had to put on your thinking cap!” with the kind of zinging spin you only get when Macy speaks Mamet. Thirdly, I sensed Mamet was back on safe turf after two relatively lightweight comedies. Not that Mamet isn’t very funny: that “thinking cap” line is inexplicably hilarious. But, like so many other talented film-makers (Shane Meadows for one) he can’t do comedy. His nailed-down dialogue is so airless there’s little room to breathe, never mind laugh – the fact that people don’t really talk like that keeps getting in the way.

Spartan, however, is set in a world – the US military and security services – where people probably do “talk like that” : terse and sharp, chock full of staccato repetitions and profanity-studded jargon so hard-boiled it skirts indecipherability (“You need to set your motherfucker to ‘receive‘ “). Most of it here goes to Val Kilmer as Scott, an obnoxiously take-no-prisoners special-forces operative called upon by Uncle Sam as when the president’s tearaway daughter Laura (Kristen Bell) is kidnapped into a modern version of the ‘white slave trade.’ But the gang don’t realise what they’ve got on their hands, reckoning Laura is just an ordinary American blonde in a Boston bar. Complications ensue.

My instincts were sound – the drive was worthwhile: Spartan is easily the best of the six Mamet-directed films I’ve seen. But a cult of over-reaction seems to be building up as a consequence of Warner’s hamfisted release strategy. It’s a bit like when The Wicker Man was out of circulation for years, or when half-a-dozen Hitchcocks temporarily vanished during a 1970s copyright wrangle. Yes, these pictures are all good – but to rank Spartan as one of the 2004’s best is a step or three too far. Especially when juxtaposed with the similarly globe-trotting, no-nonsense Bourne Supremacy.

There’s an awful lot to like about Spartan, however: Mamet keeps the 24-ish action moving fast, propelled by Mark Isham’s pounding score (further excellent work after the similarly under-exposed, but otherwise vastly inferior Highwaymen). Taking his cue from the brutally zen-straight Scott, there’s no romantic subplot to get in the way. And thus, amazingly, no room for Rebecca Pidgeon, who’s had prominent roles in all of Mamet’s movies since the pair married in 1995. Her absence is so startling that the more prurient may rush off to Google the phrase ‘Mamet Pidgeon divorce’ (with fruitless results) and it’s perhaps disappointing that the soundtrack fails to feature a certain, punningly apt track by Sporty Thievz.

But the real joy is, of course, the dialogue – unmistakably spare and bare, but with sufficient touches of ambition, lightly-worn erudition (title refers to tactics deployed by Leonidas, King of Sparta) and off-kilter wit (“You wanted to go through the looking glass. How was it? Was it more fun than miniature golf?”) to lift Spartan far above the normal run of twisty khaki-tinged thrillers. Such as, say, John McTiernan’s misleadingly-titled, incomprehensible Basic.

With Spartan, you may not always know exactly what’s going on or why, but you generally get the gist. And the payoff comes with an extended shootout finale set in a Dubai airport hangar: nail-biting, chair-gripping stuff – even if it does feature an unforgivably handy potential ‘escape route’ for Laura in the form of a Swedish TV crew and their private plane. One of several contrivances and coincidences along the way, this is an implausible and lazy touch – but not quite as distractingly daft as those Japanese ‘tourists’ who suddenly produced a rocket-launcher to ruin the climax of his 1997 Spanish Prisoner. After nine features, and several misfires, it seems Mamet may have finally set his motherfucker to ‘achieve’.

12th August, 2004
(seen 11th August : UGC, Sheffield Centertainment : public show)

by Neil Young