With Spartan, David Mamet takes on the digi-tech, hard-Clancy-core intel thriller most often inflated by Tony Scott and like-minded plodders, and typically he elevates it, botches it, and exploits it for searing political comment. Mamet is always the dilettante in any genre but his own: Spartan is structured, perhaps deliberately, like a drunken walk through a hedge maze, rife with dead ends, backtracking, and impatient short cuts. Still, he remains as interested in the severe moral relativism of masculine arenas as in their juicy patois. What’s more, he’s one of our great leftist cynics (Wag the Dog remains a formidably ballsy script sleepily directed), and however cheaply made, Spartan might be the most explicitly accusatory election-year release since 1992’s The Panama Deception.
It’s also, naturally, a good deal cheesier. The film starts out with espionage übermensch Val Kilmer training recruits and muttering Mametian aphorisms, graduates to a secret-service-trauma kidnapping (we’re not even told who the missing girl is for quite some time), and eventually becomes a wholesale conspiracy thriller involving white slavery and White House turpitude. Clearly the conceptual fulcrum, Kilmer’s Robert Scott is a seasoned, fearless, merciless “worker bee” who suddenly finds himself alone on a crusade, like the titular soldier. Kilmer’s familiar taciturnity—or is it disinterest?—defines Scott as merely an abstract idea with fast reflexes and a killer deadpan. But that’s all jake for honest B-movies, where outrageous subversion can come pulp-costumed in a clown suit full of plot holes.
Spartan boils down to Mamet daydreaming about the worst-case scenario for the Bush daugh-ters—the movie’s abduction crisis initiates the administration’s disposable-human strategy for re-election. (What we wouldn’t give for a reaction to the movie from the First Twins.) Mamet scrambles in a little Clintonian indiscretion and a Betty Fordian first lady, but there’s little question that he’s aiming this modest shoulder rocket at Bush-Cheney Corp., and that the moral gist of his wild tale is essentially true. By despairing of the military or intelligence communities rather than heroizing them, Mamet is quietly bucking the system—not just Hollywood, but the larger octopus, which will surely engineer the movie’s neglect just as congressmen blackmail broadcasting companies into suspending Howard Stern and federal tax dollars pour into faith-based institutions on their way to buying ticket blocks for The Passion of the Christ. We’ll take our counterprogramming where we can find it.