Sunday, February 4, 2007

Do you wanna gossip or do you wanna shoot somebody? David Mamet's SPARTAN

For some reason, David Mamet’s 2004 thriller SPARTAN has become a favorite of mine of late, prompting an occasional DVD screening every couple of months or so. I can’t quite explain why, except for the fact that I think it’s a really fine film, but for some reason I’ve felt the need to watch SPARTAN again every so often, like I did the other night (it became a split viewing, since I became tired and started to doze off, but started up again in the morning). It’s not like there’s something in the film that speaks to me or some great scene or moment that hooks me in, I just like the whole thing. I’m a fan of Mamet’s films since the first one (HOUSE OF GAMES) and I wouldn’t even say that SPARTAN is his best (that’s probably still HOMICIDE), but it’s such a good film overall that holds up on repeated viewings that I’m really quite taken with that. That, and HOMICIDE still isn’t on DVD.

One of SPARTAN’s great strengths is Val Kilmer’s lead performance. Kilmer appears in every scene and it can be easy to forget how good an actor he is (especially after seeing him wasted in Tony Scott’s DÉJÀ VU), but he’s given a perfect opportunity to remind you with this film and he doesn’t waste it. He’s a Special Forces op who is regarded as one of the best in his field, 100% committed to his job and doesn’t questions orders even when he knows it might be a good idea. He enters every situation knowing he may have to shoot his way out of it and that he’s always going to improvise his way through even the most prepared circumstances. He may go off at any moment (and sometimes does) and you completely buy Kilmer as this character, one part solider, one part detective, one part ruthless killer. And then, at a turning point in the film, he learns that he’s going to have to go against orders for the first time and think for himself and the unease that you see him feels very real, knowing what needs to be done but not knowing what to feel about it. What’s also very interesting about this film is that Mamet seems to have a real admiration for these Special Ops types (obviously so, since he’s based his TV series THE UNIT on them) and the job they do. Mamet shows all of the actions through their eyes, not giving us some outsider character to identify with, and the logic behind them feels integral to these characters and situations. It also makes the classic “Mamet speak” feel organic for once (although I’ve never had a problem with it), since it makes perfect sense that everyone in this film would speak in a type of shorthand that would cause most normal folks to go crazy, but since these aren’t normal folks, it’s pretty much a non-issue. If you’ve got a problem with it, that’s your problem.

Another reason I like SPARTAN so much is that within this world of mysterious people of mysterious actions is a solid action film with lots of twists and turns. It seems something of a given that not everything will be as it seems, but SPARTAN takes a very unusual route to get there and because of this it keeps you guessing. And when it comes to action (which it does with surprising frequency) it’s quick and it’s violent and usually startling, like good movie violence should be; thanks to Barbara Tulliver’s editing, there’s a great rhythm to this film. SPARTAN is also Mamet’s best-looking film to date. Working with Juan Ruiz Anchía for the first time since THINGS CHANGE, Mamet shoots in scope (Super 35) for the first time and it’s loaded with one great, evocative shot after another with excellent use of Boston locations. Mark Isham contributes a fine score and I didn’t even get into the supporting cast (William H. Macy does a very nice turn here), but suffice to say, this really is a film worth seeing. You won’t find much in the way of contemporarily political allegory here, but SPARTAN is still one of the best thrillers of the decade and deserves finding an audience. Now if Mamet will get to making another movie, we’ll be all set.

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