Spartan (2004)

Country: United States
Written and Directed by David Mamet
Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, William H. Macy, Ed O’Neill, Kristen Bell
Music by Mark Isham

If you think logically about Spartan and analyse the story, you’ll realise that it is some of the most overly contrived nonsense ever put on the screen. But having said that, this film works very well as a character study. The story is simply a very recognisable framework on which to hang a series of espionage related events that affect changes in the characters. Val Kilmer’s performance as a hard-edged professional agent twists the spy genre on it’s head. No doubt many of you have read the quote by Ian Fleming referring to James Bond as a ‘blunt instrument.’ Well, in comparison to Kilmer’s character, Scott, James Bond is a show pony. Scott is a blunt instrument – a tool, much like a handgun. He is single minded in his purpose, never allowing outside influences to distract him from his mission or his target. But whereas James Bond has a mind of his own, Scott is not a planner. His superior’s just aim him in the right direction and set him loose.

Briefly, the story is about about the daughter of the President of the United States, Laura Newton (Kristen Bell). One day she cuts and dyes her hair. Then she has a fight with her boyfriend (he didn’t like the new look). After the fight she goes to a bar, and is kidnapped to be sold into white slavery. Due to her her change of appearance, the kidnappers do not realise that they have taken the President’s daughter, but once they do, most likely they’ll kill her. Scott is one of the agents assigned to find her and bring her back.

Naturally, it isn’t that simple. Firstly Scott has to find out what I have paraphrased in one brief paragraph. Then, once he knows what we know, he has to find a way into the pipeline, in which the girls are smuggled out of the country and then effect a rescue.

But Spartan is a political thriller too, so that means that things aren’t as they seem on the surface. After Scott has ascertained that Laura has been taken to Dubai, and that certain officials failed in their duty to protect her, events are manipulated to keep the President in a favourable light with the media and public. But Scott is not the type of machine that you can just turn off when you like. Once he is set in motion, he’s very hard to stop. Like I said at the top, he’s a blunt instrument. It’s this approach, that half way through the film causes problems for Scott and his partner, Curtis (Derek Luke). After the rug is pulled out from under Scott’s feet, he decides to continue with the mission regardless. This means that he has to become a planner. He has to think about the objective and the best way to carry it out. It’s a challenge for Scott, who has up until this point, has almost been a mindless automaton.

David Mamet has put together a wonderful film. The plot contrivances are not an issue, because the film is a character piece. If it was a big, dumb shoot ‘em up, with wise-arse Val firing off one liners after each kill, then yeah, the framework would have to be better. You’d think that the idea for a film about the kidnapping of the President’s daughter, would be a big story, but here it’s almost played as if it is a generic ‘incident’. Generally, there is no emotion connected with the mission. The operations team are detached from what we would call the ‘real world’. During the film, it’s almost as if we the viewer are taken into the inner sanctum of the Secret Service and see how the cogs turn. These guys are not the police and don’t play by the rules. They act solely upon the information they have. It’s the bureaucrats and the ‘real world’ that stop them from achieving the desired result.

Spartan is one of the best and most interesting spy films of recent years, and definitely worth the price of a rental if you haven’t seen it.

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