Spartan is the first outstanding movie of 2004, although not everyone will agree. At least three people walked out of my screening, and afterwards I overheard many negative comments. Among them were “that certainly won’t do well at the box office” and “yeah, well I’ll see anything with Val Kilmer.”
I also overheard why some people didn’t like it, and I can tell you why they are wrong.
R for Language and violence
“I couldn’t relate to the girl,” said one critical viewer, putting her finger on why Spartan may disappoint the unprepared.
Spartan is an emotionally distant movie. It aims to engage your brain, but not your heart. Many people go to the movies expecting to be sucked in, but Spartan gives you nothing to latch on to. The entire plot is never spelled out for you, and the characters often behave coldly. For example, at one point the protagonist kills two men in cold blood, one of them a cop, to serve his purposes. That ought to be shocking or gut-wrenching, depending on whether we’re rooting for a hero or an anti-hero. But in the context of Mamet’s film, it’s merely another scene (which in itself is shocking, but intellectually instead of viscerally).
As to the audience member’s specific complaint, it’s clear she missed the point. If you saw David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, you may remember that the whole movie was driven by “the formula.” The bad guys wanted the formula and the good guys wanted to protect it. It didn’t matter what the formula was, it was merely a plot device — Alfred Hitchcock called them McGuffins — to move the action of the movie.
In Spartan, “the girl” is the McGuffin. You’re not supposed to relate to the girl. In fact, there is very little you can relate to emotionally in Spartan, and that is the point.
Show and Tell
Val Kilmer plays Robert Scott, the protagonist. He’s not a hero, nor is he an anti-hero. He’s merely the center of the story. I don’t want to summarize the plot because Mamet doesn’t tell the story that way. Suffice it to say that Scott is the veteran and Curtis (Derek Luke) is the rookie. They work in some military-type branch of the government as attachéés to the Secret Service, and “The girl” has gone missing.
Mamet shows but doesn’t tell. None of the characters is an audience surrogate; nobody gets briefed on all the events, thus filling us in on the plot. The movie starts in media res, and even the sharpest audience won’t know what’s going on until several minutes into the film. People talk in code and in shorthand (this is the Secret Service after all), and until we are immersed in their world, we are a little lost. Mamet shows his characters going about their business, but they don’t stop to explain anything to us. It’s our job to keep up with them.
Things do become fairly clear after 5 minutes, and again after 20 minutes, and yet again after an hour. Our depth of understanding progresses with the running of the film. First we get a rough idea of what’s going on (the veteran and the rookie try to find the girl). Then we learn more details about who is involved. Eventually we come to feel like experts, although there are things we will never know. Spartan is a brilliantly structured movie that doesn’t get boring after the first 40 minutes, assuming you appreciate Mamet’s approach.
Master of Dialogue
The other thing to bear in mind when watching movies by David Mamet is that he is considered a master of dialogue. Alan Arkin, in an interview on the Glengarry Glen Ross DVD, commented that Mamet’s dialogue is so naturalistic and fast that every “uh” is carefully and exactly scripted. In order for an actor to convincingly deliver this dialogue, he must to be able to shift mental gears very quickly. It’s taxing being an actor on a Mamet project, says Arkin. (And Val Kilmer, by the way, is up to the task.)
Working backwards, we can infer that in order to “get” Mamet dialogue, you have to put yourself into the brain of the speaker. You can’t let the dialogue wash over you, you have to think why a character would say things that way. You have to deconstruct the dialogue to get to the mental state of mind that produced it. There are some wonderful examples of this in Spartan.
Scott sneaks in to a suspect’s house late at night. The door is unlocked. Nobody is awake, but the TV has been left on. He checks the bedroom and — surprise, someone is awake and shcoked and angry that there’s an intruder. Rather than pulling out his gun, Scott says “I came in because the TV is on. Why is the TV on this late at night? At this time of night!” Doing so, Scott takes control of the situation. He makes himself the question-asker and puts the other guy on the defensive. The absurdity of the situation works to confuse the other guy as well. It’s a great scene, but only if you’re thinking about what’s happening. If you are simply watching the movie, you may think the dialogue was written by Ed Wood. Au contraire.
The very good performances by Val Kilmer and Derek Luke won’t suck you in. Rather, you have to put yourself in their shoes to appreciate their characters and their performances. If you’re looking for an easy bit of entertainment, try something else. Spartan demands you participate.
I hope I’m not the only person who finds that refreshing.