Spartan (Warner Bros., 2004)

"How did they fake the DNA?"

"You don't fake DNA. You issue a press release."

Writer/director David Mamet takes the mythological tale of the knight and the damsel in distress, adds a generous dose of secrets and lies, and turns it into a crackerjack thriller that, while not up to the level of some of his previous efforts, is still a compelling action film with more brains than average and, of course, Mamet's trademark energy and idealized "natural" speech.

Val Kilmer stars as Robert Scott, a special operative sent by the Secret Service (Mamet regulars Clark Gregg, William H. Macy, and Ed O'Neill) to find Laura Newton (Kristin Bell) after she is abducted by a white-slavery organization. When the press announces that she has been found dead, Scott is pulled off the case, until further information — and an emotional encounter — causes him to reconsider.

Offering their assistance are two young trainees eager to get involved in a juicy case like this one and prove themselves. In an opening reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs, their characters are introduced instantly. Curtis (Derek Luke), the least qualified, but the one that needs the experience most, is chosen to accompany Scott on this mission. Luke's performance shows a range unlike what would be expected from the young star of Antwone Fisher. Colleague Jackie Black (Tia Texada) is left to basically beg her way onto a later point in the mission after an unfortunate incident takes Curtis out of commission. Texada appears in few scenes, but they are important and she owns them, much as she did in the otherwise-forgettable Nurse Betty. Kilmer, on the other hand, is entrancing to watch in yet another great performance from the notoriously-difficult actor. Scott's ability to pick up on any situation and integrate himself into it is key and Kilmer is a natural, as anyone who has seen The Doors can testify.

Mamet is best known for his depictions of high-stakes scams and con games in such early films as House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner (named after an even older scam). Even the second act of Glengarry Glen Ross (a film, based on his play, for which he wrote the script but did not direct) centers around deception, State and Main is set on a movie set (need I say more?), and Heist wears its subject in its title. Dishonesty is his stock in trade and Spartan follows this theme; what is politics but one big con? The amount of lying committed "in the public interest" (and in one politician's professional and personal interest) weighs heavily over the film. There are several versions of "the truth" being touted at any given moment.

(The title comes from the story of Leonidas, king of the ancient Greek city of Sparta. When assistance was requested by his neighboring states, he would send a single soldier in response. Shot in Boston, the film offers locals notable cameos from such city icons as the famous CITGO sign, the Tobin bridge, and John Kerry's daughter, Alexandra.)

One of the most interesting aspects of Spartan (aside from the signature Mamet cadence of dialogue) is that, for the longest time, we have no idea what's going on. The characters obviously do, but the audience enters after the story has begun and it is never revealed exactly who the kidnapped girl's father is. Even Macy's presence is a mystery for some time, as he has no lines for his first several scenes.

Some of the greatest characters in film have been those who don't show up until very late in the story but whose presence is felt strongly from the beginning, often acting as the catalyst for the events. (Harry Lime from The Third Man instantly leaps to mind.) I was expecting a similar tactic in Spartan, and Mamet tries with Laura Newton, and it doesn't work. First, Kristen Bell does not appear to be up to the challenge but, primarily, the trouble is that this Laura Newton, as written, is simply not someone worth chasing all over the world.

The DVD includes a strangely hilarious commentary from Kilmer — although his delivery is so dry, it was some time before I realized he was joking. Mostly he goes off on Mamet for a variety of things, including his hair and glasses ("What is that?"), but admires "his courage to still wear a beret in 2004." Kilmer is quick to point out cameos by crew members and friends and laments Mamet's decision to "cut all the good stuff." (He hopes they'll end up on the DVD. They don't.) In addition, he makes the statement that Spartan has what must be the least swearing in a Mamet film ("my mother can see this film"). Kilmer obviously had a lot of fun making the movie, and his energy comes through. Who knew he was so funny?

"Well ... time to go home."

"Lucky man."

[Craig Clarke ]

The Spartan Web site includes an interview with David Mamet, along with the usual desktop trinkets.