No matter what the film or genre, playwright and filmmaker David Mamet has an unerring ear and eye for the con, the switch, the off-kilter action: "House of Games," "The Spanish Prisoner," "Heist." He even treats the inhumane as the everyday: "Oleanna," "Glengarry Glen Ross." (He did not direct that film.) We can also remember that he wrote the screenplays for "Wag the Dog" and "Ronin," two brilliant examples of taking the conventional and lifting it to the sublime. Oddly enough, "State and Main," his one predictable comedy, seems stretched beyond what its joke can sustain. Only "The Winslow Boy," which he did not write, seems appropriately conventional.
Now his new film, "Spartan," which he wrote and directed, takes all the tropes of the political thriller and tightens them like a garrotte around our necks. Val Kilmer is Robert Scott, star of some kind of secret warlike government agency whose every member must be prepared to kill, rescue, track, hunt, and outsmart its (our?) enemies. We meet him in a field training session, in which young trainee Curtis (Derek Luke) must perform perfectly or leave the service. But then Scott is called to Boston, where the president's daughter Laura (Kristen Bell) has been kidnapped from her Harvard dorm room, apparently by an Arab slave-trading ring that ships young blonde girls to Dubai where they're sold as whores to wealthy buyers. Or maybe she's just hiding on the sailboat of her professor, with whom she's been having an affair. Where is she? The Gulf of Aden or Buzzards Bay?
That's the setup, and Mamet has given us close to a classic of the genre. Kilmer's character Scott is a master of combat, very bright, resourceful, and almost without morals. His assignment is to rescue the girl and return her to her father, who is in the middle of a re-election campaign.
The story is not original, and you may see the final twist coming long before the end, but what separates Mamet from the schlockmeisters of Hollywood is his ability to add texture and unexpected depth when we least expect it. The ordinary moment - a stop at a roadside gas station - becomes a lesson in how Scott's agency works. Someone's signature bears witness to another event. An interrogation turns unexpectedly fatal. Mamet seems positively gleeful about adding these little frissons to excite us.
Kilmer, with his ordinary looks and intense manner, is the perfect thriller hero; we see what he sees and we learn what he learns, when he learns it. Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía, who shot "House of Games" and "Glengarry Glen Ross," adds enormously to the dark atmosphere of the film; he is as able to work in near-total blackness as in daylight. He's likely to be overlooked next January for an Academy Award nomination, but I hope someone remembers this film by then.