The Man With Two Brains

David Mamet at his best and worst in Spartan.

Kilmer. Luke. Spartan. Mamet movie.

After Sept. 11, U.S. government officials reportedly sought out sundry Hollywood screenwriters to help them brainstorm potential terrorist scenarios. I don’t know if David Mamet was among the writers whom the government consulted, but if he wasn’t, our national security has been compromised. Mamet has the most deeply imagined paranoid worldview of any American dramatist—and that paranoia is global, societal, and interpersonal. On the premise that the best defense is a good offense, he’s also a master psych-out artist: He’d make an amazing interrogator at a place like Guantanamo. I mean, Mamet plays head games with people he loves. Can you imagine what he’d do to the enemy?

Actually, you don’t have to imagine: You can check out the interrogation scene in Mamet’s gripping new thriller Spartan (Warner Bros). It’s not an especially long or graphic bit, at least by Mel Gibson standards, but the combined ferocity of a punch or slap and Mamet’s stabbing, repetitive dialogue is almost as unbearable. There’s no way that anyone could hold out for longer than a couple of minutes. (The thought of Mamet writing a Pontius Pilate number boggles the mind.)

The hook of Spartan is that the president’s daughter (Kristen Bell) goes missing from her Harvard dormitory—and it’s a measure of Mamet’s perversity that at no time in the movie does anyone use the word “president.” Someone—we never see who, because a lot of linking expository scenes are pointedly left out—calls in Cmdr. Robert Scott (Val Kilmer), who we first meet testing (and frostily taunting) a bunch of special ops candidates in a high-pressure war game. Scott is all manly stoicism, another Mamet protagonist who speaks with icy deliberation and clear strategic intent—to obfuscate, to unnerve, to gain the tactical advantage. Training the young novice Curtis (Derek Luke), Scott says, “It’s all in the mind. That’s where the battles are.”

As a film director, Mamet has perfected his mind games. He proved in the opening of his last film, Heist (2001), that he can do taut and intricate action sequences; and he knows how to move the camera, which no longer freezes for every series of stilted exchanges by actors palpably conscious of the fact that the writer is 2 feet away monitoring every last inflection. Mamet has become a master of momentum, and the first two-thirds of Spartan are breathlessly exciting. It’s mostly men (which is good, because Mamet doesn’t write that well for women), and mostly cold, hard men under pressure to move quickly and with no human niceties (which is better, because Mamet doesn’t write that well for humans). These men are operating in secret, too, which requires them not just to hunt their suspects but to scam them, too. Scams are what Mamet does best and has the best time doing.

Dialogue like Mamet’s is so artificial that I often expect the scenery to wobble. But I also find it irresistible, especially when the genre is all artifice to begin with. The first hour of Spartan can make you sick with dread, like the first season of the TV series 24. Working in concert with Ed O’Neill, as the president’s brusque Karl Rove-like chief political operative, and William H. Macy as another rabbitish agent, Scott is one step behind the president’s daughter—from a sleazy nightclub where older johns rent young blond teenagers to an eerily proper Boston escort service with a demonic underbelly. The trail leads to a North Shore beach house where Mamet stages not one but two shocking action sequences, and Kilmer gives them emotional heft. Back in fighting form, Kilmer can jab with the best Mamet mouthpieces, but something inside him sits moodily back, weighing his words with grim irony.

Spartan is a conversion melodrama, which means the hero will lose his robotic hardness and find his soul. But this is hardly a Bogarty kind of romance. You wait for the Mamet credo to kick in, and sure enough it does, with a vengeance. We are soon in the land of twists and crosses and double-crosses and double-double-crosses and triple-half-gainer-back-flip crosses (with a twist). A winner in Mamet country would have to be a gold medalist in the Machiavellian Olympics, with compromising photos of the Russian judge to boot.

The last half-hour of Spartan is still entertaining, but it’s laughable: full of absurdly venal motivations, clunky plot turns, and even a jolt of misogyny. (Mamet seems to blame the president’s daughter for having dyed her hair blond.) His is a sick and corrupt world, finally, in which few acts of decency go unpunished; and I find that just as phony and simpleminded as a world in which everyone lives happily ever after. Sometimes I wonder how Mamet can get out of bed, he’s so paranoid, let along crank out two-thirds (at least) of a thriller this crackerjack. I hope that next time he leaves out the (booby) prize.