Thursday, March 25, 2004


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2004 at Loews Boston Common #8 (first-run)

Here's a pretty spiffy thriller that slipped into theaters under the radar (and, after its two-week run completes tonight, will probably slip out the same way), with nothing more than a striking one-sheet for promotion (you just know that'll be replaced with a big shot of Val Kilmer's head for the DVD). I hadn't realized that it was set (and shot) here in Boston, and was as such my brother Matthew's introduction to going to the theater and seeing places you walked past on the way to the movie on-screen. It's a bit of an eerie sensation; you simultaneously feel some local pride, start paying close attention for any errors in geography, and wonder how you could have missed someone shooting a movie practically on your doorstep.

But, anyway, the movie. It's good, very good. It has a nice matter-of-fact procedural tone to it, with writer/director David Mamet and composer Mark Isham never feeling the need to goose the soundtrack to get the audience's interest. It's a story about the Secret Service chasing down the President's missing (kidnapped?) daughter, and that, they figure, should be interesting enough in itself, especially considering how the story is able to turn on a dime. Similarly, Mamet's approach to the action and gunplay is rooted in how special forces types actually work - it's brutal, and fast, and comes out of nowhere. The skilled soldiers and killers are finished before you're quite ready to begin. This does not mean the action feels chaotic or random, though - indeed, Mamet does a great job of letting the audience understand where everything is in relation to everything else; his ability to establish the physicality of an action scene without verbal exposition is comparable to John McTiernan or Sam Raimi on a good day.

This being a Mamet film, that "verbal exposition" is pretty noticeable. The dialog in Spartan does not sound real but does sound good. Speech is more eliptical, and seems more pre-written, than real speech, but it sounds interesting, and everyone does have their own voice, from the clipped, military words of Sgt. Jackie Black (Tia Texada) to the eager-to-please Curtis (Derek Luke). Val Kilmer's Mr. Scott, a loyal and efficient soldier, uses his odd speech almost as a tool to keep people at arms' distance. Also present are higher-ups played by Mamet stalwarts Ed O'Neil and William H. Macy. Thankfully, Mamet does not supply us with a rookie who needs things explained to him, so we learn about how these Secret Service types work by watching them act with an occasionally frightening competence.

It's nerve-wracking and off-kilter in a pleasant way. Though it's based on an unlikely plot and features stylized dialog, the execution, by both the filmmakers and characters, is so professional and no-nonsense as to banish any complaints about unreality from one's head.

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