We need more directors willing to take risks with films like Get Out.
"Spartan" opens without any credits except its title, but I quickly knew it was written by David Mamet because nobody else hears and writes dialogue the way he does. That the film tells a labyrinthine story of betrayal and deception, a con within a con, also stakes out Mamet territory. But the scope of the picture is larger than Mamet's usual canvas: This is a thriller on a global scale, involving the Secret Service, the FBI, the CIA, the White House, a secret Special Ops unit and Middle Eastern kidnappers.
Such a scale could lend itself to one of those big, clunky action machines based on 700-page best sellers that put salesmen to sleep on airplanes. But no. Not with Mamet, who treats his action plot as a framework for a sly, deceptive exercise in the gradual approximation of the truth.
Before I get to the plot, let me linger on the dialogue. Most thrillers have simple-minded characters who communicate to each other in primary plot points ("Cover me." "It goes off in 10 minutes." "Who are you working for?") "Spartan" begins by assuming that all of its characters know who they are and what they're doing, and do not need to explain this to us in thriller-talk. They communicate in elliptical shorthand, in shop talk, in trade craft, in oblique references, in shared memories; we can't always believe what they say, and we don't always know that. We get involved in their characters and we even sense their rivalries while the outline of the plot is still murky. How murky we don't even dream.
Val Kilmer, in his best performance since "Tombstone," plays a Special Ops officer named Scott, who as the movie opens is doing a field exercise with two trainees: Curtis (Derek Luke), and Jackie Black (Tia Texada). He's called off on assignment after the daughter of the president is kidnapped. The Secret Service was supposed to be guarding her, but ... what went wrong is one of the movie's secrets.