A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Tarantino we recognize because of the way his dialogue, like Mark Twain's, unfurls down the corridors of long, inventive progressions, collecting proper names and trademarks along the way, to arrive at preposterous generalizations--delivered flatly, as if they were the simple truth.
Mamet is even easier to recognize. His characters often speak as if they're wary of the world, afraid of being misquoted, reluctant to say what's on their minds: As a protective shield, they fall into precise legalisms, invoking old sayings as if they're magic charms. Often they punctuate their dialogue with four-letter words, but in "The Spanish Prisoner'' there is not a single obscenity, and we picture Mamet with a proud grin on his face, collecting his very first PG rating.
The movie does not take place in Spain and has no prisoners. The title refers to a classic con game. Mamet, whose favorite game is poker, loves films where the characters negotiate a thicket of lies. "The Spanish Prisoner'' resembles Alfred Hitchcock in the way that everything takes place in full view, on sunny beaches and in brightly lit rooms, with attractive people smilingly pulling the rug out from under the hero and revealing the abyss.
The hero is Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), who has invented a Process that will make so much money for his company that when he writes the figure on a blackboard, we don't even see it, only the shining eyes of executives looking at it. ("The Process,'' he says. Pause. "And by means of the Process, to control the world market.'' The missing words are replaced by greed.) He works for Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), who has convened a meeting in the Caribbean to discuss the Process. Also on hand is George, a company lawyer played by Ricky Jay--a professional magician and expert in charlatans, who is Mamet's friend and collaborator. And there is Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's wife), whose heart is all aflutter for Joe Ross, and who is very smart and likes to prove it by saying smart things that end on a triumphant note, as if she expects a gold star on her report card. ("I'm a problem solver, and I have a heart of gold.'') To the Caribbean island comes a man named Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), who may or may not have arrived by seaplane. We see how Mamet creates uncertainty: Joe thinks the man arrived by seaplane, but Susan thinks he didn't, and provides photographic proof (which, as far as we can see, proves nothing), and in the end it doesn't matter if he arrives by seaplane or not; the whole episode is used simply to introduce the idea that Jimmy Dell may not be what he seems.