“You had your whole life to prepare for this moment. Why aren’t you ready?” Poor Curtis (Derek Luke). How could he be ready for this question, leveled by special ops trainer Robert Scott (Val Kilmer), at the moment Curtis pauses, breathless and sweaty after chasing a scampering energizer bunny of a target, Sergeant Black (Tia Texada), through the woods for miles? Scott sighs, smirks a little, and offers a challenge: “If your mission is to quit, then do it now.” Curtis sucks it up, taking off once more in pursuit of the young sergeant now sprinting into the trees.
Curtis’ perseverance, not to mention his marked desire to please, makes him a superior recruit, a man who will not quit. It also makes him a likely subject for David Mamet. In Spartan, the writer-director extends his famous preoccupation with masculine preoccupations into the murky workings of the U.S. government. Within this milieu, the film argues, toughness is measured not by innovation or creativity, but by obedience. Real men respect the chain of command, in part because it complicates responsibility: the men who wield guns, mount assaults, and kill people are not the men who give the orders. Violence is abstracted then, its effects removed from both agents and administrators.
At once topical and complex, this setting is apt for Mamet, celebrated for his contemplations of male privileges and frailties, including House of Games (1987), Homicide (1991), The Spanish Prisoner (1998). The focus on Spartan is the taciturn, self-possessed Scott, whose lack of moral accountability begins to give way when he’s assigned to sort out an impossibly convoluted case. At the top of his profession, a lifer with no compunctions, Scott is called on to find Laura Newton (Kirsten Bell), missing daughter of the man who appears to be the president. Kidnapped from her residence at Harvard, the girl (as in, “We need the girl,” “The girl is in the house,” and “Where’s the girl?”) seems to be in the hands of sex-slave traders with a penchant for blonds, en route (“in the pipeline”) to Dubai. The U.S. operatives hope to find her before classes start again on Monday, when the situation will be transformed, in their clever phrasing, to “Meet the press.”
Scott takes the assignment without hesitation, perhaps stirred (it’s hard to tell, he’s so stoic) by the suggestion that his work will be “off the meter.” This phrasing by Burch (Ed O’Neill), suggests that he recognizes in Scott the man he needs: “I need a man, a man who can unquestioningly follow orders.” Scott’s that man: “The door is closed,” he says, meaning that they are literally alone in a closet and, more importantly, that good soldier Scott is not anticipating the subterfuges and betrayals to come.
Such cryptic man talk is famously Mamet’s specialty. And, as is often the case, William H. Macy (as Burch’s second, Stoddard) delivers such dialogue as if it is from another planet, which makes it simultaneously endearing and chilling. That’s not to say that Kilmer doesn’t do well, though as he’s on screen for most of the picture, he has a lot more of it to handle, and some of it just turns silly: “I ain’t a planner. I ain’t a thinker,” he spits, “I never wanted to be”; or, when he’s seeking cover from his own men, “You gotta get me to the tall corn”; or once more, to Curtis, who’s asking too many questions, “You gotta set your motherfucker to receiver.” (Throughout the movie, Luke’s insistent, subtle warmth sets Curtis apart from his fellow global warriors, as he’s not so adept at lying through his teeth; he’s also given to a weird kind of faith, as when he reports to his superior officer that he’s seen “the sign,” which has particular meaning here, as well as evident metaphorical meaning.)
Repeatedly and helpfully, the language in Spartan distracts from its pedestrian, if moderately oblique, “thriller” plot. This takes Scott and Curtis from one isolated location to the next, as they almost find the girl but just miss her time after time. Some of these turns feel familiar from other movies (or even tv’s 24), as when Scott kidnaps a prisoner, Tariq Asani (Saïd Taghmaoui), who has connections to the slave trade. That Tariq is impressed by Scott’s frankly incredible brutality suggests that, as “evil” as he and his compatriots are supposed to be, the U.S.-trained soldier is more monstrous, or at least more ingenious.
Other plot turns are more odiously preposterous, as identities of enemies and friendlies become increasingly unclear. One involves a saving grace embodied by international (here Swedish) reporters (this Three Days of the Condor-ish faith in the press to do right when governments do not seems almost quaint). Another odd changeup involves a female Secret Service Agent, who accosts Scott with a moral mission (as opposed to the missions he had in mind, either to quit or not). As they dance around the issue of who’s doing what to whom, she stops Scott short: “There is no they, you are they.”
At this point, Scott’s own sense of who’s who is pretty much destroyed: he starts to wonder if maybe he is they. And so, the movie’s primary question shifts, from “Where’s the girl?” to “Who are they?” As this pronoun gaming becomes more compelling than the action that sets it up, the men, by definition in Mamet, can’t know who they are.