Spartan (2004)

Directed by David Mamet

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Spartan really moves, almost right off the bat.  It’s an addicting kind of a movie, with Val Kilmer playing some version of 24‘s Jack Bauer, free and eager to bend the rules so that he might accomplish the mission in front of him.  Scott (Kilmer) works for the Secret Service in some capacity, but what he does isn’t so important as the freedom he has to do it.

He insists to a protege (who acts as the audience surrogate) that it’s not his job to question his assignment or to even think about it.  His role is to follow orders, and the less he knows the better.  He is pure instinct.

Of course the story will evolve in ways that force him to think critically and to question those in power.  It’s a corrupt thriller like so many from the 70s, only here all that corruption feels a little rote.  Instead the thing that fascinates me about Scott and about this film is the way it follows in the legacy of John Ford’s The Searchers.

Scott is tasked with finding the President’s daughter, and events transpire in ways that make sure he is the only person out to save her by the end.  This whole ‘tough guy out to rescue a young girl’ thing is hardly knew, and it’s perhaps most visible in a movie like Taken.

And that idea of the tough guy as protector, with all of his impulses and strengths put to good use, is drawn from The Searchers.  In that film, however, we saw the dark side of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), even as he was the film’s hero.  He’s out to save his niece from Native Americans whom he views as nothing more than barbaric, and he’s so sure that his niece has been corrupted, that she cannot be saved but only put to rest.

The same forces are at play here, only it’s not Scott’s role to to want to destroy the girl he’s out to find, but it is the role of the U.S. government, who view her as little more than a loose end.

So there’s something to that, the dichotomy of savior and destroyer, of really just having all that power over one person, though in the case of Spartan I think it’s buried under the cool factor.  Scott is a character, like a Jack Bauer or a John Wayne, who is never not in control.  He is there to be admired, someone who is almost always a step ahead of the audience and even those in the room with him.  He’s smarter than everyone else, and in the end he has a moral center that they all lack as well.

So that kind of character is just sort of uninteresting when he’s not deeply involved in some complicated conspiracy plot.  Watching him at work, carrying out some plan we’re not fully aware of, is certainly exciting, but once we catch up to him and understand who’s who and what’s what, then he loses some of his shine.

Scott, it would seem, might benefit from a bit more of an objective framing, so that we might see some of his weaknesses and flaws, like with Ethan Edwards.  To be this adept, this cold-blooded, well there must be something missing, but in the end he remains the hero, even if the system refuses to recognize him as such.  We see him as a hero, just as we did from the very beginning, and that kind of character feels sort of bland.  He’s cool, he gets cooler, and then he’s cool again.

It’s that same shine which makes part of the film so enrapturing.  It’s almost all style, with half-formed characters only detailed enough to be cast in a video game cut scene, not an entire feature film.  They talk and move a certain way that is stimulating on its own, but I get the feeling there isn’t a lot there.  They are characters with little inner life, just people who drive forward the rather incredible, even if a bit convoluted plot.

It’s one of those stories that speaks to all these ideas and conspiracy theories that have been thrown about, another story about corruption and the exciting filth of the secret lives of people in the public eye.  There’s a real darkness, but it feels kind of simplistic and manipulative.

Still, watching Scott burn through it all can be rather exciting, but once we finally understand the mystery and what’s going on, it’s a bit underwhelming, and that lack of a mystery makes Scott feel all the more plain.

Up Next: Talk to Her (2002), Volver (2006), Lone Survivor (2013)

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