Wednesday, September 1, 2010

[Film Review] Spartan

Spartan is a spy movie of the kind all too rare, that which prizes intelligence over spectacle and tactical chutzpah over gadgetry and kung fu. That the agents here fumble their assignments far more often than they complete them successfully adds a further spin to the story, which starts out with so many standard tropes that I was worried that the next couple of hours were going to be straight-up genre rehash. Instead, the narrative moves us through that familiar territory just long enough for us to get comfortable with what we think is going to happen next and then begins throwing so many curveballs that we completely empathize with a protagonist who begins to doubt everything around him.

Val Kilmer didn't quite sell me on his character, though he was only off by a degree or two. He plays haunted very well, of course, but in scenes where he's supposed to be intimidating and bullish, he just seemed to be talking faster and louder than he does elsewhere rather than exerting a greater presence. Thankfully, there aren't a lot of these scenes, and he nails the difficult task of conveying his character's unwilling transformation from self-described drone to a person forced to take agency into his own hands. That he manages to do so without making major changes to the outward demeanor of his character, but rather by hinting at what that demeanor is an inward reaction to, is a pretty fantastic trick to pull off.

The film keeps things moving at a brisk pace, not slowing a bit to explain what's happening, either in terms of plot or social setting. Though it's unlikely that Mamet assumed that his audience would be familiar with the working techniques of Secret Service actions, it's mighty refreshing to watch characters who don't need to tell each other things that they already know as a way of clueing in the audience. More than that, though, not getting bogged down in operational or hierarchical details helps to give the story a more universal quality, the importance of which becomes more and more clear as the film progresses.

There are plenty of tasty bits of the particulars of tradecraft, but we're spared the kind of elaborate flash-forward-with-voiceover sequences that tend to characterize this sort of skullduggery in films that have less respect for their audiences. Instead, we get to see the kinds of unglamorous but critical actions that James Bond never has to bother with, presented without a lot of flash. Mamet's workmanlike camerawork serves him in good stead here, acting as a visual reminder that this sort of subterfuge is second nature to the people in this subculture rather than anything for them to get particularly excited about.

That's not to say that it's all brush passes, cut-outs and false flag ops at the expense of any action sequences. There are action scenes, very well-crafted, which punctuate the more talky and political intriguey plot arcs with just the right amount of frequency. These aren't the extended setpieces of a Bourne or Mission: Impossible film, though. Mamet keeps the gunplay on a scale small and fast enough that we can't help but wince at every gunshot. Every single shootout is an ambush rather than a firefight, and every bullet is potentially lethal, which perfectly suits the film's unstated conceit that safety is nothing more than another lie that we tell ourselves so that we can get on with our lives. The principal characters in the movie know this, which is why they're so terse and objective-oriented. Being so aware of just how quickly life can end leaves them no time for argumentation or angst.

The various characters serving the Secret Service act as slight variations on the theme of personal sacrifice to ideology, though interestingly, we never learn why any of them have chosen such dangerous lifepaths. That suits me, as I'm happy to file that under "trusting the audience" rather than needing to hear yet another speech about god, country and flag. There's just one wrinkle to that, though, which is that the only truly mercenary character in the film seems to be just as ready to die for the mission as any of the more obviously indoctrinated characters. There are any number of fanwank explanations for his readiness to die - we never even learn his name, let alone why he's willing to risk his life for an operation that he's got zero personal stake in - but it does undermine the theme of soldiering for a cause, at least a bit.

The final question, which the film never answers directly, is the meaning of the title. There are a few throwaway references to it in one scene, but whether or not the opinions expressed are those of the characters or those of the film are left ambiguous. Certainly, the idea of the Spartan warrior, whose life is devoted to his (or her, as the film is happy to point out) cause and has no meaning outside of that devotion, is central to most of the characters depicted. We get only glimpses of the lives of characters who live in normal society, who are presented as little more than a very thin justification for the quiet wars that the primary characters wage. Our protagonist is shown to have a double life, but it's one with no personal meaning to him, nothing more than an temporary escape from the front as a means of rest. In his interactions with the townspeople who know him only as a mostly-absent businessman, we see that he's entirely unable to connect with them. Though he expresses some self-derision at how easy it is for his secret identity to be penetrated, it's clear that what he really feels is relief at having a reason to be drawn back into the fray.

That good fight is the only thing he knows now, and whether or not he's able to remember why he started fighting is left an open-ended question. What complete dedication to a cause means, and what its (sometimes surprising) consequences are, is the central question of the film. But because it's so densely populated with fanatics who can no longer comprehend such a concept as a "normal life," Spartan excellently takes apart the assumptions of the Cold Warrior genre, pushing its audience to question why they haven't experienced the same revelations about the hollowness of that kind of politically-generated conflict which its protagonist is forced to confront. It's very much in the vein of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, updated for an era even less sure of the rightness of its own causes.


  1. I love this movie. Love Mamet! I just saw THE AMERICAN with George Clooney and i put that movie in this catagory of excellent. If you like Mamet have you ever seen THE SPANISH PRISONER?

  2. I have seen The Spanish Prisoner, at least partly based on your recommendation, actually. I thought it was okay, but had too many plot contrivances and Xanatos Gambits for me to get excited about it. Heist was better, but every time guns were onscreen, it seemed to turn into a bad low-budget '80s Hollywood action movie. Spartan fixed all those problems, and definitely seems like the best of that bunch to me.