on March 12, 2004 by Michael Tunison
Those who figure the phrase "smart action movie" is a contradiction in terms should be referred to celebrated playwright-turned-filmmaker David Mamet's "Spartan." Bearing the writer-director's unmistakable stamp on every whiplash-inducing twist and steel-jacketed snatch of dialogue, it's an intellectual's "Rambo," a tough-guy flick with plenty to say about our genuinely danger-filled world. For star Val Kilmer, it's a long-overdue return to the sort of strong action material he worked so memorably a decade back in films like "Tombstone" and "Heat."
Kilmer plays Robert Scott, a military special-operations officer with unspecified connections to the twilight zone where law enforcement, espionage and politics come together in an amoral gray blur. He's the guy you call when a dirty job has to be done "off the books," which is exactly what's called for when the president's college-age daughter (Kristen Bell) disappears under scandalous circumstances that may be tied to a white slavery ring. While Scott prides himself on being the unflinching soldier who leaves questions of legality and morality to the "planners," he finds himself making an uncharacteristic emotional investment in his task as things spin so far out of control that even the veteran operative can no longer tell who is on which side.
Though it doesn't deal with terrorism per se, "Spartan" is the first major action-thriller set in a recognizably post-9/11 world--a terrifying place in which a secretive national security apparatus has been given the green light to do whatever is necessary to contend with equally shadowy enemies, on or off the books. Oozing the paranoid atmosphere of the great '60s/'70s political thrillers by directors such as John Frankenheimer, it's still Mamet all the way down to the irony-drenched core. Happily, the filmmaker reins in his tendency toward the dizzying plot over-twisting that made "Heist" and "The Spanish Prisoner" a little too clever for their own good (though he can't resist a sequence in which a key character is introduced, goes through two major identity transformations in the span of a few screen minutes, then is never seen again). Starring Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, William H. Macy, Ed O'Neill and Kristen Bell. Directed and written by David Mamet. Produced by Art Linson, Moshe Diamant, Elie Samaha and David Bergstein. A Warner Bros. release. Action. Rated R for violence and language. Running time: 106 min
Tags: Starring Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, William H. Macy, Ed O'Neill, Kristen Bell, Directed and written by David Mamet. Produced by Art Linson, Moshe Diamant, Elie Samaha, David Bergstein, Warner Bros, Action

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