This review contains spoilers for Spartan
You could be forgiven for dismissing Spartan out of hand as Val Kilmer’s latest direct-to-video action dud. The more mean-spirited of you may do a double-take to see if 50 Cent costars, just to be sure you shouldn’t take it seriously. Granted, when it was actually released in 2004, Kilmer’s stock was already in decline, and save for a minority of critics it was largely shrugged off by a viewing public caught up in the growing arms race of effects-driven blockbusters. Its synopsis does it no favors either. Kilmer stars as a government operative tasked with tracking down a politician’s missing daughter. So far so Steven Seagal. It couldn’t look more throwaway if it tried, which is enough to wonder what anyone thought could be accomplished with such a threadbare production. And therein lies the secret to Spartan. Writer-director David Mamet (whose involvement may surprise anyone who dignifies Spartan with that double-take) turns its smallness in his favor, relying on his gift for oversized dialogue to bombard your ears with whatever he can’t throw at your eyes.
Mamet knows there’s nothing that exciting about watching furrow-browed people piece together clues or mull over coincidences, so he takes every opportunity he can to quite literally cut to the chase, tagging along with Kilmer as he follows up on leads and executes schemes meant to get him closer to the missing girl. This saves on frills, as the runtime needn’t be padded with flashbacks or other flourishes to liven up the investigative process. The script is constantly thinking forward, propelling the movie at such a speed that it’s a wonder the analysts presumed to be offscreen feeding intel to Val Kilmer are bright enough to keep up with the pace. Dead ends are reached, sinister implications uncovered, but the goal is always crystal clear: find the girl. It’s a philosophy shared by Val Kilmer’s protagonist, a self-described servant whose standard operating procedure is shoot and ask questions first, maybe give a shit about what he’s done later. Mamet enters his headspace by never letting up, scoring Kilmer’s pursuit with music that blares like a siren over the omnipresent state of emergency that characterizes Kilmer’s every moment.
Kilmer may be a bit much in some scenes, particularly when he applies his interrogation techniques on individuals who aren’t exactly uncooperative, but his confidence otherwise sells the role. Everything about his performance is in service to Mamet’s nerve-rattling pace, portraying the single-mindedness of the modern day Spartan who smells blood. Clark Gregg as well turns in an enormous performance that belies his amiable appearance, proving that Marvel was right to entrust him with an increasing workload in their expanding cinematic universe. Kristen Bell, on the other hand, is put in the very awkward position of making a strong impression three-quarters of the way through the movie, and, as hard as she tries, it’s obvious that despite Mamet’s knack for dialogue he just can’t write a teenage girl. She wavers from panic attack to self loathing to insolence in the span of as many lines, and it’s hard to get a grip on who she is and what exactly has been done to her.
Spartan is generally akin in concept and execution to the many military thrillers and detective stories of its time, feeling like a mix between such flicks as Basic, Proof of Life, and the Alex Cross movies, but it also sits very comfortably between Mamet’s own Heist in 2001 and Redbelt in 2008, forming a trilogy based on discipline and duplicity that focuses on loners fighting against the system. Fans of Mamet would be remiss to pass it over, but that shouldn’t be taken as a weak compliment recognizing its potential for cult status. Spartan is great counterprogramming to many widely available political/crime thrillers, darting through their bloat and tediousness, making every small moment feel like a payoff. What many may see as self-seriousness is really a devotion to economy in storytelling, something that a kneecap-busting Kilmer would approve of.