½*/**** Image B+ Sound A- Commentary C+
starring Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, William H. Macy, Ed O'Neill
written and directed by David Mamet
by Walter Chaw Because we hate Arabs (and women almost as much as we think that Arabs hate women, those hateful Arabs), there are films like David Mamet's patently ridiculous, relentlessly offensive, unintentionally hilarious Spartan. A brilliant theatre man, the very definition of a keen cultural philosopher (his book of essays Some Freaks is must-reading), Mamet as film auteur has grown increasingly esoteric to the point now that his exclusive playpens of linguistic masturbation are so alien and self-conscious that they begin instantly to function as satires of themselves. His action is action as imagined by an egghead, all awkward movement and frustrated invective. His is the school of anti-casual cool, the drama club suiting up for the Friday night football game, and his supporters are cut from the same cloth, believing that there's a point to be made in Beckett for the brute while ignoring that Beckett is best staged with Spartan minimalism and left in the theatre besides. The films Mamet has directed range from sophomoric (House of Games) to grating (State and Main) to just incompetent (Heist), though Spartan reminds the most of one he only wrote: the wilderness howler The Edge, with its machismo over-examined and placed in a context that isn't allegorical as it must be, but hardboiled realism as it can't be. It's P.G. Wodehouse adapted for the screen by John Milius, and predictably awful.
With his theory of language as narrative raging with a staccato fury, exposition is discarded and what's left is the mean gristle on an overworked bone. In Spartan, the President's daughter Laura (Kristen Bell) has been sold into prostitution by a white slavery ring based in Yemen; it's up to double-super-top-secret Ranger agent Scott (Val Kilmer) to bring her home. But wait, the prez is a philanderer, his goons (Ed O'Neill and William H. Macy) are bureaucratic hitmen in the Parallax View tradition, protégé Curtis (Derek Luke) is the token African-American partner waiting for a bullet with his name on it, and maybe all is not what it seems in this Spanish Prisoner of a quadruple-cross.
While crafting the illusion of brevity in his clipped, metronomic dialogue (and scenes paced and hacked into unimaginative, rudely truncated parcels), Mamet's effect is not tension, but rather desensitization born of constant, excessive repetition. Rabbit punches don't knock you out, they sap your stamina. Kilmer's character is reduced to "The Man" and he refers to all women as either "The Girl" or "Baby"--in a climactic scene, as he and Laura are stalked in an airplane hanger, the villains' wooden declaration of "You, stop. The Man. Let The Girl go" is so incongruous that it all but demands that Spartan be approached through non-literal tactics. (Tackling any Mamet film with the mind that it will ever make sense, after all, is cross-eyed badger spit.) So the probability arises that Mamet wishes his films to be seen as a kind of populist avant-garde cinema, full of ideas about the role of language in visual text and in the interim disdaining the menial task of telling a story that has some semblance of respect for internal coherence. While there's nothing wrong with abstruse theory, Mamet really falters when he pretends that instead of a great playwright, he's a competent director gifted in filming conventional action, dialogue, and romance.
Apart from the disconnect between Spartan's head and its body, there's the disturbing idea that Mamet, never good with women (his best works--American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross--don't even have female characters), has with Spartan begun to punish them for his deficiency. Every woman in the film save one is a self-abnegating, self-loathing creature eager to call herself a whore, get brutalized by Scott for being an escort or madam, be shepherded around anonymously, or, in a pivotal moment, display strength as a secret service agent before bursting into Mildred Pierce histrionics. Reducing them to "The Girl" is Mamet's way; reducing them to "Baby" is patronizing. The one woman spared this treatment, Sgt. Black (Tia Texada), gets shot in the back while protecting that other kind of woman, of course.
Worse are the Arab bogeymen. This film and Hidalgo go a long way towards distracting from the comic-book supervillain Jews of The Passion of the Christ (who knew that the Middle East Crisis was a civil war in the Legion of Doom?)--the level of casual dysfunction in Spartan pushes at the level of absurd. Consider a bad film's worst moment wherein Scott advises that the smell of "American tobacco" carried on the sirocco breeze is a trip-hammer tip-off to the Bedouin baddies. The implications--animalism the least of them--to that sort of bullshit is the sort of thing that nudges Spartan from just another bad Mamet movie into an altogether rarer clime, one shared by other obsolete cultural artifacts interesting mainly for their ability to place the worst of the society that spawned them in context. Spartan is a barometer (and it knows it, referencing the effect of barometric pressure on human perception)--but knowing it doesn't excuse it. Mamet is now only as he has ever been: a good academic and a really bad filmmaker, though on the bright side, he did resist casting one of his mannequin wives this time around. Originally published: March 12, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Warner presents Spartan on DVD in a fine 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The film was shot by Glengarry Glen Ross cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía and looks it, with the stability of his trademark sizzling reds pardoning the intermittent 'LaserDisc' appearance of the image, i.e., an ineffably dated digital sheen. The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is authoritative: swirling helicopters provide discrete presence while gunshots take sufficient advantage of the LFE channel; dialogue is breathtakingly clear. Val Kilmer contributes an appropriately spartan feature-length commentary, sounding half-baked during those moments in which he does speak. After stopping himself from spoiling a plot point, he realizes that first-time viewers are probably not listening to him--and assesses those who are to be "really strange!" At his most lucid (a term applied loosely), Kilmer, with a touch of iconoclasm, imparts a little about Mamet's process, including the hyphenate playwright's use of his children as a barometer for material and preference for "traditional" filmmaking techniques. Forced trailers for the remake of The Big Bounce and Shade precede the main menu, while Spartan's theatrical trailer rounds out the disc. Originally published: June 8, 2004.