Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 17, 2004 1:18 pm 
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A no-fun gray-green blur

Mamet’s Spartan doesn’t feel like fun, but then it seems efficient, it seems to make sense. And then it probably doesn’t. And afterwards you don’t feel anything. Val Kilmer is strong as an invincible maverick lone wolf ranger Marine secret agent type who’s so good, or so independent, or just so idealized and generic, he can run his own show. Even when he’s retrieving the president’s daughter. She's just called "the girl." Everything is anonymous, as if this were a 12-step program for spy adventure freaks. There’s an intricate story that unfolds gradually whereby she turns out to have gotten kidnapped because her secret service protection went AWOL, but that turns into a cover-up for the president’s philandering, and since it’s an election year, his “handlers” (the term Noam Chomsky uses for Bush's neo-con chickenhawks) decide to let the girl go and pretend she's dead. And that leaves her in a fix, because she’s been nabbed by Arab white slavers without their even knowing who she is. They’re dumb! They’re Arabs. Is anyone surprised that post 9/11 a Jewish writer should revel in Arab nasties, when Hollywood always has anyway?

To atone for this -- or more accurately just to widen the demographic -- there are some prominent token minority roles. The movie begins with a war game exercise supervised by Kilmer wherein his two future sidekicks chase each other, a black man panting through the woods behind a Latino woman. As a reward for this performance much later Curtis (Derk Luke), the young African American, gets to have his head blown off; the tough chica he was chasing (Tia Texada) gets to be the last-minute rescuer and isn't shot (in the back) till the film's final minutes. Kilmer’s only wounded and appears in a brief afterward to show he’s survived. "The girl" is whipped off from Dubai in a Scandinavian plane. What becomes of her we never know.

The trouble is that Spartan begins as a game and ends as a game. Far fetched though this genre always is, its better avatars tend to try to seem real. Mamet’s version is so khaki, neutral, and pared down that there’s nothing much to look at or feel. Mamet is, so they say, a brilliant playwright. He’s much less successful as a filmmaker or film writer, because his ingenious wordsmithery seems strangely out of place surrounded by the intense physicality and visual detail of movies. Spartan is a mechanical thing, very simple and efficient (if implausible), but almost wholly without character: Kilmer is a soulful automaton at best. You’re left with nothing, no visual splendors, no emotion, no real impression, just a whir of gunshots and a gray-green blur. Surprisingly, William H. Macy, that arch-nerd, makes a pretty mean amoral bureaucrat as the president’s handlers’ enforcer. And the actors in general do good work. The trouble is that despite the patented rhythmic dialogue (downplayed here anyway), it’s all too generic to be memorable, though some actioner freaks may be deceived into thinking this is something special because there’s a brain behind it. Sure, Mamet’s screenplay has some very harsh and (who knows?) perhaps very justifiable things to say about American political morals and what a president might do to stay in office, but that’s destroyed by the racial stereotypes and the general coldness.

[Published on FilmWurld]

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