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Spartan
by Carla Freccero
Aired March 23, 2004


Now playing at the Del Mar in Santa Cruz, Spartan is the latest David Mamet film, starring Val Kilmer as Scott, a Special Operations guy who is forced, for the first time on one of his assignments, to think about what he has been asked to do.

Called in from the field because of the kidnapping of the president's daughter, Scott is sent to find the girl (Laura Newton, played by Kristen Bell) and instead finds himself caught in a web of intrigue and double-cross, where people are completely dispensable and politicians are completely evil. Well, we already knew that, right, and Scott somehow never thought about it before. He just did what he was told. But then he seems surprised and eventually he's even moved by human sympathy which, in the context of his character as it is initially drawn-and in the context of this actor too-is completely baffling. But never mind. Since the narrative depends entirely upon the twists and turns of plot that are also supposed to be a surprise, I don't think I can tell much more of the story.

There's something absorbing about these characters, even though in many ways they don't make sense. Derek Luke (from Antwone Fisher and Pieces of April) plays Curtis, a young recruit who first assists Scott on his assignment, and proves to be brilliant, observant, and smarter than Scott because younger and less cynical. But also, unfortunately, more prone to fatal mistakes. Likewise Jackie Black, played by Tia Texada, another enthusiastic and courageous young recruit whose sympathy for Laura's caretaker leads her to inspire her fellow soldier ("green to green" she says) in his rescue mission. In fact, the younger folk-both, it should be noted, people of color-both have the role of reinspiring goodness, faith and initiative in the seasoned but cynical hardened warrior. Is this a national allegory? Well, then they should take note, because all those good qualities don't protect you from bullets.

And speaking of bullets, there's a lot of shooting in this movie, and a lot of violence in general, not really spectacular but so plentiful it gets to you. Small roles by famous actors-William Macy and Ed O'Neill among them-keep one entertained and the dialogue, hopelessly stilted in Mamet's characteristic way, nevertheless is intriguing enough to elicit a puzzled "huh?" every once in a while. Although some might enjoy the novelty of Mamet's theatrical scriptwriting, especially when inserted into such an unlikely genre-spy thriller-I found it grating, all the more so in that Kilmer's delivery seemed unintentionally deadpan. In fact, besides Macy, I thought the best actor was Kristen Bell who, after all, has a pretty tiny role to play as the implausibly too-tough president's daughter.

All in all, while the movie doesn't drag, it doesn't have a lot to offer either. I suggest you give it a miss. Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.