Wag the Cog

Con Freres: Val Kilmer and Derek Luke in Spartan.Photo: Lorey Sebastian/Warner Bros.

Life as an exercise in gamesmanship is the central theme in most of David Mamet’s plays and movies. His new film, Spartan, which he wrote and directed, resembles a search-and-rescue melodrama, but it’s odder than that. At times it’s like a nightmare variation of Wag the Dog, the political comedy Mamet co-wrote about a war faked on television to divert attention from the president’s philandering. In Spartan, the president’s daughter (Kristen Bell) disappears from her Harvard dorm, and Robert Scott (Val Kilmer), a career military officer working for a top-secret special-operations force of Secret Service, FBI, and CIA agents, tracks her whereabouts to a white-slavery ring in Dubai. But since this is Mamet, the story is knotty with switcheroos and scams. Nothing is as it seems—which is just the way Mamet likes it.

Scott initially comes across as a lethal weapon who follows orders unquestioningly. As various conspiracies play out, he begins to realize he is being manipulated, supposedly for a higher political good. Mamet doesn’t take a simpleminded view of Scott; we are meant to believe that, on some level, people like him are needed to do the country’s dirty work. But this staunch soldier is equally closed off before and after his betrayal, which limits our emotional involvement with him. Spartan is a character study embedded in an action-hero scenario. Neither aspect ever really breaks loose.

Mamet wants us to know that America is run by sleight-of-hand politicos in collusion with the media—and we’re the fall guys. He encourages our sympathy with Scott’s growing suspicion that he is being conned by his overseers, but on a deeper level the director has too much respect for con artists—and too much contempt for patsies—to sustain his high dudgeon. Scott’s protégé, Curtis (Derek Luke), a novice warrior with palpable rectitude, functions as Scott’s conscience; he’s too naïve to understand how the game is played. And yet, as with Scott, Curtis never comes fully to life, and I think it’s because Mamet is much better at dramatizing malice than righteousness. Even though they have scant screen time, the upper-echelon operatives played by William H. Macy and Ed O’Neill are more vibrant than their good-guy counterparts. They have a multilayered nastiness, an ability to shift the terms of the con at a moment’s notice, that makes them blood brothers to Mamet’s many other sharky protagonists high and low, especially the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross and the connivers in The Spanish Prisoner. The master magician Ricky Jay, Mamet’s friend and frequent collaborator, isn’t in Spartan, but if he were, he would not be out of place playing the president.

“Mamet wants us to know America is run by sleight-of-hand politicos in collusion with the media—and we’re the fall guys.”

With its dollop of deep-think grafted to its thriller plot, Spartan comes across as an action picture for intellectuals who want the pleasures of the genre but wouldn’t be caught dead at a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Certainly no one would mistake Mamet’s film for such a beast. For one thing, its budget wouldn’t cover the catering on Enemy of the State—when the action shifts to Dubai, for example, we are all too obviously in the Hollywood Hills (in ways as much spiritual as geographic). Mamet isn’t particularly adept at directing shoot-’em-ups, and he doesn’t seem to mind; he gives us just enough to keep the plot moving. The real violence, as is always the case with Mamet, lies not in the mayhem but in the thrusting rhythms of the dialogue. It’s tempting to think that Mamet chose the martial setting for his new movie simply because the soldiers’ clipped speech appealed to him—the staccato is a (slightly) heightened version of the way his characters usually talk. Scott and the others have a propulsive, obsessional desire to use words to maim and shock, and this suggests a connection between military-ese and hard-boiled fiction. When Scott grills his captives about the abductee’s whereabouts—“Where is the girl?” is his unchanging refrain—he could just as well be a cop, or a mob enforcer.

In fact, Spartan seems a lot closer to pulp noir than it does to an action thriller, and this is not just because of the nightfall imagery and bullying badinage. It’s also because of the sentimentality. Scott is the stereotypical tough-guy outsider who reveals himself to be a secret softy. When he’s not on assignment, he lives in arcadian anonymity far away from any urban rot. Kilmer plays Scott as a kind of ninja Philip Marlowe—he’s scarily deadpan, but valiant. He’s also worldly-wise enough to know that the girl he’s rescuing is no princess—she calls herself, with some justice, a “little whore”—but he puts himself on the line anyway. She’s that noir staple: the tramp bailed out by the dark knight. Mamet tries strenuously to leave us with something uplifting, but darkness prevails. As in most noirs, the succor is never as pungent as the poison.

Hidalgo, from Disney, is an epic horse story for people who thought Seabiscuit didn’t have enough sand. Viggo Mortensen plays real-life Frank T. Hopkins, the half-Indian former cowboy and Buffalo Bill trouper who has seen better days with his champion mustang, Hidalgo, until both are invited to enter a 3,000-mile race across the Arabian desert. Hopkins is as leathery as his steed, and his lips are in dire need of Chap Stick. As the first American ever to enter a non-Arabian horse, he’s the instant underdog and endures endless spittle-spewing taunts from the other riders, though not from the sheikh’s daughter (Zuleikha Robinson), who seems eager to lift more than her veil for him. The sheikh is played by Omar Sharif, and the movie was shot in Morocco, like Lawrence of Arabia—though director Joe Johnston will never be confused with David Lean. Fortunately, most of the malarkey in this movie seems intentional in the same Sunday-afternoon-serial way as the Indiana Jones movies (some of which Johnston worked on). It all goes on for too long, and I could have done without the computer-generated leopards and locusts, but make no mistake: Viggo Mortensen doesn’t need orcs to be a star.

Wag the Cog