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Damn It, Mamet!

The master of macho dialogue seems to have lost his touch.

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The problem with Spartan isn't so much that it's mediocre but that it could have been a whole lot better. Unlike writer-director David Mamet's last movie, Heist, a film with such a generic plot and predictable Gene Hackman performance that it never had a chance, Spartan has a reasonably compelling story that makes the viewer at least wonder (though not always care) what will happen next.

The problem lies with virtually every element other than the story. Though the film's title refers to a story about the ancient Greek king Leonidas of Sparta -- who would send a single soldier to anyone who requested military aid -- the word also describes the cinematography, locations and character development. Director of photography Juan Ruiz-Anchia shoots this film almost exactly the same way he did last year's Edward Burns con-game flick Confidence -- full of grainy footage with superfluous reds and blues.

As for the cast, blessedly, Mamet regulars Ricky Jay and Rebecca Pidgeon are nowhere in sight, and David Paymer merely makes a cameo as a TV news anchor. Ed O'Neill is reasonably frightening as a tough government official, and Derek Luke is impressive as a greenhorn military operative. But William H. Macy is simply not menacing enough to come across as a threat, and Val Kilmer, in the lead role, is a disappointment. Playing the lone Spartan warrior, a supersecret military operative who kills with impunity and then disappears into the shadows, Kilmer would seem to be a decent choice. The zenlike spaciness he often brings to the screen ought to translate into the kind of blankness such a character needs. Unfortunately, he plays it dumb, hinting that he's kind of a redneck in his civilian life by peppering his speech with phrases such as "you don't gotta" that don't ring true. John Travolta, who's been doing this kind of role a lot recently in movies like Basic, would have been better.

It's best not to reveal too much of the story -- any enjoyment you're likely to get from the film depends utterly on its ability to surprise -- but it involves a president's missing daughter and Kilmer's Robert Scott on the case. Paranoia from both sides of the political aisle is in play. This president is not just a naïve dupe in the thrall of malevolent handlers obsessed with waging war but also a womanizer who uses law enforcement to cover up his indiscretions. Mamet clearly didn't have a large budget to work with, which becomes glaringly problematic when, for example, characters painstakingly plot an elaborate heist only to ditch it in favor of "run at the bad guys and shoot them." That the climax depends on the sudden appearance of a new character makes one wonder if budget issues prevented the shooting of an adequate setup.

But what of the dialogue, you might ask? Mamet's a dialogue guy, famous for rapid-fire macho B.S., isn't he? Um ... he was. But he isn't very good with it here. The best line is a blatant crib from Roddy Piper in They Live -- you know, the movie about being all out of bubble gum. When Mamet tries his hand at military code-speak, it just sounds silly. "Lemme speak to the Chinaman," Kilmer says over the phone. "You tell him the only man ever heard him call on Jesus." And Mamet's getting lazy with character definition -- Kilmer's Scott is clearly supposed to be tough by virtue of the fact that he eats his apples with a knife. (Note to would-be tough guys -- using any kind of cutlery to eat an apple just makes you look stupid.)

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