Photo by Lorey Sebastian

Like one of his own fast-talking con-artist protagonists, playwright-turned-filmmaker David Mamet has never been prone to modesty. In his 2000 feature State and Main, he depicted the members of a film crew on location in a tiny New England hamlet as a uniformly boorish, idiotic bunch — save for the movie’s writer, heroically played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. In 1991, after completing only his second film as director, he published a book boldly titled On Directing Film. Now comes Spartan, a suitably Mametesque title and, if nothing else, a reminder that Mamet’s filmmaking technique has steadily advanced over the years, albeit quite possibly at the expense of his writing. He can stage action scenes as muscular as all the Hollywood big boys now, and he can come up with concepts just as loony as theirs, too.

Set primarily in Boston, the film begins with the disappearance of a prominent politician’s daughter, Laura Newton (Kristen Bell), from an Ivy League college campus. Enter Robert Scott (Val Kilmer), a master gunner in a military special-ops unit and the kind of guy the heavy hitters bring in when the going gets too tough even for them. He’s assigned to find out if Newton has just run off for a little unguarded R&R — maybe even an affair with one of her professors — or if something more sinister is afoot, something like (are you ready for this?) an illicit white-slavery operation based in Dubai that may have snatched Newton without realizing who she is. Hot on her trail, Scott saunters into a seedy Fenway dive and holds a picture of Newton up to a sultry, seen-it-all barmaid. “I’m looking for my niece,” he says. To which she replies, “Are you sure? Because a lot of guys come in here looking for someone else’s niece.”

So far, so spartan — if a bit like a moldy 24 rerun. Yet all the while we’re holding tight to the theater carpet beneath our feet, anticipating the Mamet tug. It finally arrives, more than an hour into the picture. Just as it appears that Newton is being shipped off to Dubai, Mamet gets us looking at the situation from a whole new, conspiratorial vantage, plunging us into a political thriller that’s supposed to be startling for its depiction of the depraved depths to which a candidate might sink in the thick of a re-election campaign. In fact, the only startling thing is how seriously Mamet seems to be taking all this hooey. His big, grandiose point is that when it comes to politicos, they’re all up to no good. Or, as one of his characters so eloquently says, “These people are savages.” Terrifically terrible, Spartan could well be Mamet’s first true comedy.

Only the movie thinks it’s a nail biter or, at least, a contemporary morality play in which Scott’s efforts to retrieve Newton will resolve his crisis of conscience and make the world a better place. Though he never emerges as more than a series of familiar tough-guy poses, Scott is clearly intended to be Mamet’s avenging-angel alter ego. But avenging what? Slave traders? Big bad government? Hollywood studio executives? The answer (apologies to the Coen brothers) is as clear as mud. For all his recurrent fascination with conspiracy and fabrication, the problem with most of Mamet’s movies is that, beneath their stories’ pretzel-like surfaces, there’s just more pretzel. And in Spartan, he’s no more interested in the crisis of human trafficking than was Stephen Frears in last year’s Dirty Pretty Things. The issue serves merely as the cycloramic backdrop for a hackneyed suspense programmer, gussied up with a fetishization of paramilitary paraphernalia (night vision — cool!) that even Michael Mann and William Friedkin might find excessive. What if Mamet had shown the same cavalier attitude toward anti-Semitism in his superb Homicide?

In the thick of it all is Kilmer, trying his darndest to wrap his lips around the Mametspeak — that precisely cadenced diction so sharp that each syllable seems chiseled from a block of stone, that conspicuous absence of contractions. He can’t nearly nail the rhythms, and every time one of the Mamet vets (like Ed O’Neill and William H. Macy) briefly steps onscreen, you’re reminded how the lines should sound (even if these lines are far from Mamet’s best). Reliably one of our most enjoyable eccentrics, Kilmer tends to either fully invest himself in a role in a big, methody way (as in The Doors and Tombstone) or fully divest himself of it in a smirking, Johnny Depp way (in stinkers like Batman Forever and The Island of Dr. Moreau). Both styles can be entertaining. Here, we keep waiting for him to do one or the other, but instead he remains stuck in a strangely clinical, distant, straight-and-narrow performance. He’s so stiff, he seems to feel that cracking a smile would cost him his job. As for Rebecca Pidgeon, Ricky Jay and those other fondly missed Mamet regulars — maybe they got one look at the script and hightailed it to Dubai.

SPARTAN | Written and directed by DAVID MAMET | Produced by ART LINSON, MOSHE DIAMANT, ELIE SAMAHA and DAVID BERGSTEIN Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide

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