erik lundegaard


Spartan (2004)

At the beginning of "Spartan," a lightning-fast political thriller from writer-director David Mamet, Curtis (Derek Luke), a young recruit in an elite special-ops force, attempts to introduce himself to his instructor, played by Val Kilmer. "Do I need to know?" the instructor interrupts. "If I want camaraderie I’ll join the Masons."

The movie’s the same. Names? What are they for? He, she, you, it, the girl, the man — that’s all you need. At one point, Kilmer’s character, listed as "Scott" in the credits although the name is barely annunciated in the film, says, typically, "If it ain’t me or her, kill it."

In other words, we’re in David Mamet territory again — a playwright and screenwriter whose macho, highly stylized dialogue, known as "Mametspeak," is often criticized because "People don’t talk that way."

Written byDavid Mamet
Directed byDavid Mamet
StarringVal Kilmer
Derek Luke
Kristen Bell
William H. Macy

Here, rather than change his style, Mamet simply puts his lines into the mouths of macho, terse men — special ops — where it seems at home.

Besides, there’s nothing phonier than using dialogue as a means of providing backstory, and Mamet does the opposite: He intentionally obfuscates backstory. What’s going on? Who’s been kidnapped and why, and what’s happened to her? It puts us on the edge of our seats. We strain to catch up because Mamet’s dialogue is, well, Spartan (concise to the point of seeming rude or mysterious), just as his protagonists are Spartan (marked by strict self-discipline), just as the nation they represent — our nation — is Spartan (geared toward militaristic adventures).

Through the thicket of pronouns we learn that a Harvard student (Kristen Bell) has been kidnapped, and that her father is a very important man — presumably the president of the United States. There are several suspects. Her Secret Service detail left his post. Why? She and her boyfriend had a fight that morning. Because? She was also sleeping with her professor. Who is where?

Kilmer, cold and impassive, burns through this evidence and discovers she was most likely mistaken for a prostitute and kidnapped by a white slave ring. Once her kidnappers find out who she is, they’ll kill her. "I’m here to get the girl back, sir," Kilmer tells his superior (Ed O’Neill). "And there’s nothing I won’t do to get the girl back."

Up to this point, Kilmer’s character could be the hero of a thousand different action movies — relentless, impassive, monosyllabic. He’s the guy moviegoers shell out billions of dollars every year to see.

But just as Kilmer & Co. are about to attempt a rescue, the news breaks: The girl’s body has been found off the coast of New England. A sailing accident with her professor. A nation mourns. The operation stands down.

Curtis, however, still believes the girl is alive, but Kilmer is dismissive. A good operative, he tells him, travels light — i.e. doesn’t think. Later, when circumstances force him to think, something new enters his eyes: doubt and uncertainty.

Kilmer — whom I’ve rarely enjoyed as a leading man — is quite good here, and "Spartan" is a wonderfully subversive little film. It critiques the very action heroes we usually cheer, and the ending is as cynical as any you’ll find in a post-9-11 film. A good antidote for moviegoers (and an electorate?) used to traveling light.

Originally appeared in the March 12, 2004 edition of The Seattle Times.

—January 8, 2015

© 2015 Erik Lundegaard