"Where's the girl?" The question is asked repeatedly in Spartan, but it also makes for a succinct plot description of the movie.

Val Kilmer stars as Special Ops officer Scott, who begins the film conducting training exercises for new recruits. The would-be agents quickly learn that Scott—esteemed for his skills in espionage, strategy, and combat—is tough and focused … and not around for the camaraderie. One night, before leaving the training grounds, he's suddenly called off assignment for a more pressing mission: A young woman is missing, perhaps kidnapped. It is absolutely imperative that she be found quickly.

Kristen Bell and Val Kilmer

Kristen Bell and Val Kilmer

Revealing much more would ruin the surprises of Spartan, and thus the enjoyment. Who is this young woman, and why is she so important? What leads are there to follow? Who saw her last and what information do they have to offer? These questions are answered in the first 20 minutes … or are they? With plot twists upon plots twists, the less you know before you see the film, the better. The movie is of the same breed as The General's Daughter and Basic, but much better. Think of it more as a hybrid between episodes of "Law & Order" and "24,"or enjoy it for what it really is: a jigsaw puzzle without the box cover. The edge pieces come together quickly and establish the movie as a crime drama with military and political undertones. How the central pieces fit and what they reveal only becomes clear as the story unfolds.

It's been quite some time since Kilmer has starred in a worthwhile film (depending on your tolerance of anything since 1993's Tombstone)—with the notable exception of 1998's The Prince of Egypt, a Dreamworks animated film with Kilmer as the voice of Moses. In Spartan, Kilmer does the role justice—driven, hard-edged, cool as a cucumber. It's important to make Scott likeable without becoming overly boring or charismatic. Kilmer appropriately plays him as tough and stoic, but also infuses it with intelligence and subtle charm. There's not much in the way of character development, but this is the kind of movie that focuses on story, not the drama of the relationships. As such, some might say that character actors like William H. Macy and Ed O'Neill seem wasted here—they're good, but many other actors would have been equally suitable.

Val Kilmer takes his best shot

Val Kilmer takes his best shot

The real star of the movie is writer and director David Mamet. One of the great playwrights of our time (Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo), he's been writing screenplays for years (The Untouchables, Wag the Dog) while gradually developing a career as a director (The Spanish Prisoner, Heist). There's an unmistakable rhythm to Mamet's work, easily identified by the quick, textured dialogue. Mamet also seems obsessed with crime dramas and con games, so the fact that the plot is so labyrinthine is also a dead giveaway.

Article continues below

For many, Mamet's writing is the greatest strength of this film; for others, it's a source of frustration. I'm tired of movies that underestimate the intelligence of the audience. Key plot points are telegraphed far in advance, information is spoon-fed to the audience, and then linger to make sure everyone has caught up and made mental notes.

Not so with Spartan, which retains the feel of a good espionage novel. The audience never knows more than the characters, and often much less. Names and job titles are rarely given. Terminology and procedures are used that will seem unfamiliar to the layman. Just go with it. It's like a book by Tom Clancy that uses experience to explain, not pages of technical jargon. Suffice to say, you don't want your attention to wander while watching this movie.

Val Kilmer as Robert Scott

Val Kilmer as Robert Scott

The viewer also needs to rely on more than the dialogue. In an early scene between Scott and a bartender, what's said is not as important as how they say it and what they do during the conversation. Mamet also offers some clues during the film that are clearly in camera range without focusing on them or requiring the characters to acknowledge it at the time. It helps makes it an active—instead of passive—experience for the moviegoer.

Still, there are perhaps a few too many unexplained plot "conveniences" in Spartan—the sort that Charles Dickens liberally utilized in many of his books. It's probably enough to annoy some, but that would be ignoring the film's strengths. It's a tight and engrossing mystery thriller, and while it won't go down in history as one of the greatest of its kind, there's enough here to satisfy those looking for an intelligent film.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. In the pursuit of truth, does the public have the right to know about everything pertaining to its political leaders and military operations? When is discretion a more appropriate response?

  2. Considering the details of the film, are there times when the good of the individual outweighs the good of the country?

  3. Where did things go wrong in the film's story, how does it snowball, and what else might have been done to rectify the situation?
Article continues below

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Note: The following contains a plot spoiler.
Spartan is deservedly rated R for language and violence, more for the former than the latter. The shootings are intense, but not frequent or gratuitous. The film includes a labyrinthine plot and adult subject matter—think "Law & Order" or "L.A. Confidential." It's a cerebral crime drama with political tangents, pertaining to the white sex slave trade. While nothing is graphically depicted or discussed on the subject, Spartan is geared for mature audiences.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 03/18/04

Amongst writers, theater buffs, and filmmakers, David Mamet is as celebrated as any Hollywood star. Mamet's projects, whether or not he directs them, stand out because of his clever, rapid-fire dialogue. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says Mamet "works like a magician who uses words instead of cards." Mamet's latest, which he did direct, is Spartan. Val Kilmer (Heat, Thunderheart), Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher, Pieces of April), William H. Macy (Seabiscuit), and Mamet himself are all earning mainstream applause.

This fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat thriller follows the trials of a special operations officer who joins the international hunt for a missing Harvard student. Despite his professionalism and espionage expertise, Robert Scott (Kilmer) finds himself taken aback by the investigation's unexpected twists, which take him deep into a labyrinth of deceit and disturbing revelations, from dark alleys to the deserts of the Middle East. The more he adheres to his moral convictions, the farther he strays from what his superiors order him to do. Spartan paints a dispiriting picture of how difficult it is to be a principled man in a complex, volatile, and corrupt international landscape.

My full review of the film is posted at Looking Closer. For those who can endure the company of some tough guys whose language is as rough as their militant methods of investigation, this is a sobering and challenging story about the cost of integrity. Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) has high praise for the film as well.

"This is one of the best movies I have ever seen in this genre, bar none," says Ed Cox (Christian Spotlight). "It is extremely fast-paced, has you gripping your seat during most of the movie, is spiced with points of humor so as not to take itself too seriously and leaves you with a message that to find truth you had best not look to man alone." But he adds, "This is a very sad, very depressing movie. Those dealing dirt to each other are not punished; those acting honorably pay the price—sounds like a familiar story that happened 2,000 years ago."

Article continues below

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls Mamet "a master of minimalist dialogue. He expects us to bring our intelligence to the theater with us. We, the audience, must learn to pick up things as we go. The final act is a bit too contrived and preposterous, but overall the film is a taut and thrilling adventure of political intrigue."

Elliott points to the central question of the film: "At what point do we stop following the orders of men in order to answer to a higher authority? The answer must be 'always.'"

"Smart dialogue highlights this suspenseful espionage story," says Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter), "but beware the language and violence."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) says the film "has some positive Christian allegorical elements, but, regrettably, fails to capitalize fully on them."

Snyder is right, but the film is not an allegory, nor is it made by someone trying to make a religious point. Mamet is interested in illustrating the trials of a principled pilgrim in a world of corrupt politics. In doing this, he taps into a difficult truth: Sometimes, doing the right thing is complicated and costly.

Snyder also objects to Mamet's description of a corrupt U.S. president. But where many filmmakers would have turned Spartan into a chance to take cheap shots at President Bush, Mamet goes out of his way to make this president a fictional one. (There are as many echoes of Clinton here as Bush.) Further, he emphasizes that the commander-in-chief's decisions are only as good as the information he is given to use as a basis for action. If that information is flawed—as it very recently was—then the person acting on it cannot be held solely responsible for mistakes. Spartan demonstrates how evil can flourish even when everyone is doing their job. Sometimes, virtuous men must put their lives on the line even if the world seems to crumble around them.

Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for violence and language)
Directed By
David Mamet
Run Time
1 hour 46 minutes
Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, William H. Macy
Theatre Release
March 12, 2004 by Warner Bros.
Browse All Movie Reviews By: