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Val Kilmer stars in this low-key, 2004 David Mamet thriller as a crack Marine called to pull special-ops duty for the Secret Service when a lapse in surveillance leads to an explosive case of missing persons. Kilmer's Scott tracks the apparent abduction of the missing girl with ferocious intent, but as with any Mamet script, things are seldom as they seem. Spartan takes some skillful, and some convoluted, turns as Kilmer's mission-oriented, ask-no-questions soldier experiences a crisis of faith in his objective and suspects unthinkable corruption in his superiors. Spartan barely registered in theaters during the Passion of the Christ-sated spring months of 2004, and although Mamet has never particularly been a force of box-office might, his satisfying 2001 thriller Heist still grossed five times Spartan's meager $5 million domestic take. Moviegoers may have been distracted by Mel Gibson's controversial blockbuster, but Spartan is clearly far from Mamet's best work, and the lack of studio support in promoting the movie is not surprising given its fairly uncommercial results. The idiosyncratic auteur's terse dialogue lacks his usual color (a Mamet script without a memorable profanity is rare indeed), and the (fittingly) spartan nature of the scenario never allows room for the rough playfulness that enlivens Mamet's better works. Kilmer, enjoying a bit of a mini-renaissance with The Salton Sea (2002) and Wonderland (2003), appears to relish Mamet's complex material, and he acquits the role with a razor-sharp focus (save for a few moments when his character's covert play-acting is shockingly unconvincing), but he creates such a necessarily cold persona that there's little incentive for the audience to become involved in his predicament. However, the biggest obstacle to Spartan's success is its credibility. Mamet never effectively sells his labyrinthine plot. In his similarly twisty whodonewhats like House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, and Heist, both the protagonists and antagonists are fully explored (and frequently change places) before the narrative smoke clears; but Spartan is such a one-man-show that only Kilmer's half of the story is fully developed, leaving his adversaries defined by a paper-thin cynicism that, valid or no, is barely compelling for dramatic purposes, and hardly convincing or worthy of a writer of Mamet's usual intelligence. Nonetheless, Mamet, even in low gear, is still satisfying on a very basic level, and Spartan is lean and well choreographed, and always keeps the viewer one step behind the action. Also with Derek Luke and Clark Gregg, and both Ed O'Neill and William H. Macy in brief appearances. Warner's DVD presents the film in a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Kilmer provides one of the better commentary tracks in recent years (possibly one of the best by an actor), if only for his wry ribbing of Mamet's grooming and work habits. He is both insightful and amusing. Trailer, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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