Underrated: SPARTAN

David Mamet's 2004 thriller SPARTAN is so underrated it might be the least-seen absolutely amazing movie I can think of.  In hyperbole, for every 20 people I ask about it, maybe one or two even knows what I'm talking about.  Seriously, though, the people who have seen SPARTAN know it is one of the most amazing achievements in a stellar career few will ever rival.

The film, like much of Mamet's work, assumes a lot of its audience.  For example, it doesn't explain every single plot point, instead opting to trust the audience to follow events and use context to extrapolate what's happening.  This is a rarity in most Hollywood-produced films, and SPARTAN isn't a film where nothing happens that needs explanation, either.  It's a twisted, convoluted road to travel down, full of red herrings and double-crosses; trade-mark Mamet.

The plot involves a black ops agent, Scott, played by Val Kilmer riding his mid-decade come-back, who is given the task of finding the daughter of a high-level government official.  Not once in the first thirty minutes is it even clear whose daughter it is, but when talk of the Secret Service enters the picture, it's pretty clear who is at stake.  That's the trust in the audience it has, not overt or explicit, but enough information to have a full grasp of the situation, as long as one is willing to think about things the same way characters are being asked to in order to make conclusions.

The film is full of amazing performances.  Here, Ed O'Neill steals the show.

The cast is filled with a ton of fine actors, some Mamet regulars, like William H. Macy, and others who I wish did more work with the director, like Ed O'Neill, who steals early scenes in a too-little yet just right role, and Kilmer himself, who probably hadn't turned in a performance this good since he played Jim Morrison for Oliver Stone.  Also of note is a pre-fame Kristen Bell as the kidnapped girl. 

The film's visual style is a hybrid of genres, with lush reds and cool blues dominating almost every frame.

Music, cinematography - fantastic.  The film is awash in hues of reds and blues, creating a hybrid visual aesthetic that's somewhere between spy thriller and film noir.  The world Kilmer's spy inhabits is filled with shady deals and slimy characters, after all.  The music emphasises the blending of genres, with horn parts and staccato drums throughout, never quite settling into which mode it wants to be in, and is really a great score when put with the imagery.

The audience is involved in the mystery itself thanks to great writing, and a superb trust in the audience.

I love little things about the dialogue.  Something about everyone asking, over and over, "Where's the girl?" to anyone who may have remotely been involved or know anything has a kind of charm to it; a poetry of phrasing and emphasis, maybe.  And then there's the scene where, trekking through the last known wherabouts of the girl at a club and Kilmer and Derek Luke interrogate a suspect in an alley behind the place.  There is a brief tussle with Kilmer breaking the guy's arm. 

Scott : (to Luke) Take out your knife. (to suspect) Where's the girl, Jerry?  (no answer; to Luke) Take his eye out.  (brief pause, Derek Luke looks at him unbelieving) You bet your life.

This is intense stuff, and much of the action in the film is handled in conjunction with people talking, something Mamet is known for.  The thrill of the language is just a big as that of the events happening onscreen, and propels the film into the outer spheres and makes it into the magical wonder that it is.  If you still haven't seen SPARTAN, do so.  I guarantee one of the most rewarding film experiences of the last decade, if not ever.


Christine said...

Hurray, someone who agrees with me about this film. It is spectacular in many ways. I watch it frequently and still discover new things as I do. Mamet is a considerablly talented writer, with a fantastic use of words and rhythm. And Val Kilmer is just the right actor to play the role and get the best from the writing and direction.

matt said...

I am a huge Kilmer fan. And a huge Mamet fan. Guess SPARTAN fits the bill. But I'm glad you're one of the few who saw it and get it.

And thanks for checking my site out. Hopefully you'll come back for more...:)

Eric said...

Remember watching this with you back at Howard St and really getting drawn into this movie like it was a dream. I think I may have given Val a ribbing at the time, but I still love the guy.

matt said...

Well, it's not like Kilmer doesn't deserve a ribbing now and then. But I'm glad you remember watching it. It's fantastic.

Justin Garrett Blum said...

Did a Google search for "underrated spartan" and came up with a link to this post. Spartan is one of these perfectly-realized films that, for whatever reason, simply wasn't loved by everybody, and I'll be damned if I can figure out why. From language to performance to story, this is one of the tightest films I've ever watched. I love it.