Spartan (***)

Posted on March 2nd, 2004 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

We knew next-to-nothing about this movie, except that it was written and directed by David Mamet and starred Val Kilmer. That was good enough for us, so we headed down to take in an early-evening show after work.

The film starts with no ado, and no explanation of the characters or the setting or the plot or anything. In fact, Mamet structures the story in such a way that there is almost zero exposition by any of the characters, and you have to really pay attention to understand what is going on, who the characters are, and why they are doing what they’re doing. It’s not deliberately obtuse, or anything, but you, as the viewer, are responsible for staying with the story, and what’s there is there, so if you don’t get it, you don’t get it.

Normally I don’t hesitate to talk about plot, since the marketing people behind most movies seem to delight in telling most of the story in the trailer. However, in Spartan the plot unfolds in little, begrudging steps, and a large part of my enjoyment of this film was the pleasant feeling as each new piece of the jigsaw puzzle snicked into place. But below I am going to talk about the plot, so I recommend that if you haven’t seen the film, but think you might see it, go ahead and see it, then come back here to read the rest.

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SPOILERS AHEAD

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

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As the movie opens, we see Val Kilmer as a vaguely military-type guy, and he appears to be observing some sort of pursuit training in a forest area. A young male recruit is chasing/tracking a young female recruit and Kilmer’s character is providing advice/encouragement/criticism. In a wonderfully unexpected turn of events, there are no romantic entanglements between any of our primary characters. It’s not that I’m anti-romance, or anything, it’s just that in virtually every other movie where a character is a young, female military recruit (or just a young female), there is an inevitable subplot involving love (or at least lust). It was refreshing here to see people able to interact without falling into bed with each other for a change.

Once the training sessions are complete, Kilmer’s character packs his duffle and climbs in his truck to head out, but instead he’s stopped, handed a message, and climbs aboard a chopper that speeds him to a situation room where it’s apparent that something bad (and big) has happened. If you haven’t already seen the film, please don’t read this part because it’s wonderful to experience the arc of the story as it is told on the screen. What’s happened is that a girl is missing, presumably an important girl given all the hubbub.

It turns out that the president’s daughter has been kidnapped, and Kilmer’s character has been brought in to find her and bring her back. It becomes clear during the film that things like Constitutional rights, the Geneva convention, and human compassion do not apply to Kilmer’s character, and he is not only licensed to kill, but to maim and torture as well. It’s not that he’s sadistic, or even out of control, but he is very driven and effective in his work.

The rest of the story will be left as an exercise for the viewer. Suffice it to say that the story twists and turns in directions that I didn’t expect, and in fact wouldn’t have even have conceived of until after I saw the film. And I love that. I love when a film (or a book, or TV show, or anything) tells a story that continues to feel realistic while it bends and twists into directions that at first seem impossible, but then makes a lightning jump from inconceivable to inevitable. And the foundation for that jump is that the story, although certainly not mundane, feels real and possible.

The script is crisp, and Val Kilmer does an excellent job embodying the character of the ruthless and effective problem solver (for the good guys [maybe!]). The direction is tight, the locations are realistic, the cinematography imparts the correct mood, and the entire package is a thoroughly enjoyable, unexpected piece of entertainment. Forget that you aren’t seeing ads for this on television, or hearing about it from your friends. Go out and find it and watch it as it is more than worth the price of admission.

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