The Best Movie You Never Saw: Spartan
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.
Special Forces officer Bobby Scott is called in to help retrieve the kidnapped daughter of a high-ranking government official, but finds that saving her may cost more lives than he imagined, including his own.
The original script is by David Mamet (GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS), who also directed the film. Val Kilmer stars as the lead, Bobby Scott, with Derek Luke playing a newly minted agent assisting him. William H. Macy, Ed O’Neill, and Clark Gregg play government agents tasked with the investigation with Tia Texada as a field agent. Kristen Bell plays the kidnapped daughter and Saïd Taghmaoui (THREE KINGS) playing a prisoner with special information.
The film was conceived by Mamet, who worked closely with Eric L. Haney, a retired member of Delta Force and one of its first (author of the book Inside Delta Force). Haney advised Mamet and even worked as a consultant on the film, training actor Val Kilmer in the many aspects of being an “operator” including weapons and survival training. Haney and Mamet would later collaborate on the TV show The Unit, which was based on the exploits of Delta Force.
Produced by Art Linson for a relatively low budget, they secured Kilmer early on during a lunch meeting where Kilmer just happened to be sitting at the next table. They briefly talked to the actor who was interested in the film after hearing about it and was then later cast as the lead. Kilmer’s role was based almost exclusively on Haney, even incorporating the same scars onto his body.
The film debuted on March 12, 2004 and was considered a box office failure, grossing only $4.4 million domestically and $8.1 worldwide. It had fairly favorable reviews, sitting at 64% on Rotten Tomatoes. Since it’s debut, the film has picked up steam on the home video market with enthusiasts seeking out Mamet’s signature dialogue situated within a tense and violent political thriller.
WHY IT’S GREAT:
SPARTAN is a political thriller procedural that defies the normal procedures. It’s a film that utilizes the real-world tactics of the most elite covert warriors the U.S. has to offer in a situation that you’re not used to seeing them in. The resounding belief or thought is that special forces operators wear camo and kill the bad guys in faraway countries in a flurry of Call of Duty bravado. Well, that’s true to an extent, but there’s a whole other aspect to these kinds of warriors and it comes in the form of Bobby Scott, as portrayed by Val Kilmer.
A former marine, a former/current undisclosed special forces operator (some will recognize the term Delta or CAG) who is tasked with finding the kidnapped daughter of a high-level government official. We meet him in the opening as he helps oversee the final stages of try outs for new recruits, one of which is Derek Luke. He has a scar on his face (and later revealed on his back), but carries himself cool, calm, level-headed, and intensely professional. He plays like a real-world Jason Bourne, rather than the superspy version we’ve come to know. You can buy him in this. You can believe it. And it’s a damn cool thing to see.
If you’re familiar with David Mamet’s work, then you’re well aware of his snap, crackle, pop dialogue, so finely infused in films like GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, THE UNTOUCHABLES, THE EDGE, etc. He’s got a long resume of films that bustle with energy, his characters walking and talking amidst a fast-paced world. Even when they slow down to just talk, the pace keeps up. It’s Mamet’s “signature.” He does it well and with SPARTAN the energy is still there, only this time he plays it straight and to the point, all business, like the operator’s it emulates.
"Well, it's a fairy tale. As I say, it's a dark, dark, fairy tale, and it's not a political statement, although it's a political thriller." – David Mamet (on SPARTAN)
SPARTAN isn’t the greatest political thriller you’ll ever see. But, it’s one of the most compelling in terms of the characters’ actions. The things that Kilmer’s Bobby Scott does while on the job are like a grab bag of MacGuyver tricks that don’t require invention, but technique. He’s so highly skilled and trained that he has a “next move” for everything and rarely misses a beat when put in a situation that would have most people shitting their pants or stumbling over their words. And when it all goes wrong he doesn’t hesitate. Again, like the real-life warriors he’s portraying, Scott is, above all else, a professional. He’s a “worker bee” as he calls it.
He doesn’t question orders, doesn’t freak out, doesn’t lose his shit. He shows up to work, punches in his card, and does his job. He’s Jack Bauer without the temper. Jason Bourne without the memory loss. And watching Kilmer seamlessly walk this part across the screen is a really cool thing to see. In fact, SPARTAN is the last film I saw the actor in where I was really impressed (second to KISS KISS, BANG BANG).
The film jumps from scene to scene, barely taking a moment to breathe, keeping the momentum of the actual investigation (the kidnapping) at a high speed. What I love about that method of storytelling (and it doesn’t always work) is that it keeps you on your toes. Rather than anticipating what will happen next, the rug is pulled out from under you as you start each scene cold, piecing together the clues as you go. There are also a number of really clever sequences that transpire as the investigation deepens, setting up some really intricately planned scenarios that play out with a wonderfully orchestrated precision, including a jailbreak set-up.
"It's hard to put your finger on it, but he's got a great rhythm to it, you know, a very distinct style. Like in this story, it's just the main thing isn't so much the verbal rhythm that he's famous for as just the juxtaposition of the scenes and the movement of the characters. It's very fast." – Val Kilmer (on Mamet’s style)
There are a number of recognizable faces throughout SPARTAN, including Agent Coulson himself, Clark Gregg, playing…a young, humorless Agent Coulson. Ed O’Neill (Al Bundy!) shows up as well, playing it straight and tough, and Kristen Bell pops up at the end as the kidnapped daughter, showing off some acting skills we haven’t really seen since. Everyone hits their marks, while reciting the Mamet chatter and it clicks. It works.
Again, SPARTAN isn’t a classic, but it’s a damn fun movie that will have you nodding your head in approval and creating a few “Ahhh, now that was clever” moments that elevate it well beyond your typical thriller. Characters surprise you (even as they expire), actions shock you (Kilmer punching his kidnapped victim to calm her hysterics is kind of brilliant), and the pacing will keep you invested, even as you piece it all together. This is a smart, clever, and surprising thriller that deserves a better day in court.
That world had interested me. I think [author John] le Carré had one of his character's observe that a government is defined by its spies. What they're willing to have a spy do, covertly or overtly, defines the character of the nation. And when you look at it that way, this is a wonderful story because it brings up how powerful the government is and the relationship with the media, which is, more times than not, questionable. – Val Kilmer (on the world of covert operations)
There are a lot of clever moments and twists, but the standout is the jailbreak sequence. However, the sequence that plays to all the film's strengths, from the violent interludes, clever and interesting tactics, and Mamet-style dialogue is when Kilmer and Luke follow a lead to a bar that leads to the "interrogation" of a suspect. Badass in every sense.
SPARTAN is available on DVD and digital download. Unfortunately no blu-ray, but the digital version on iTunes is available in HD.
Why would I want to know? I ain't a planner, I ain't a thinker. I never wanted to be. You got to set your motherf*cker to receive. Listen to me. They don't go through the door, we don't ask why. That's not a cost, it's benefit. Because we get to travel light. They tell me where to go. Tell me what to do when I get there. – Bobby Scott (Val Kilmer) in SPARTAN.
CLICK IMAGE TO OPEN GALLERY & SEE MORE PICS...
|Extra Tidbit:||Homework for next column: John Woo's Hard Boiled|