erasing clouds


reviewed by dave heaton

Like his 2001 film Heist, Spartan finds David Mamet infusing a tried-and-true genre film with his style of dialogue and storytelling. And this film works just as well as the previous film did, and looks to become just as under-appreciated as that film was.

The genre at play here might not be the one you're expecting. While on the surface the film looks to be a political thriller - its central conceit is that a lone-guman-type special agent must help find out who kidnapped the President's daughter - in actuality it owes much to the hard-boiled detective fiction of writers like Dashiell Hammett and, even more so, Raymond Chandler. The film's lead character, Scott (Val Kilmer), is very much in the vein of Chandler; he's introduced as a tough-as-nails man-for-hire who knows everything and will stop at nothing to make sure the job is done right. Underneath his cold exterior, however, we know lurks both a soft heart and an all-too-human fallibility that he's uncomfortable with. The story also unfolds in typically hard-boiled fashion, with Scott finding himself navigating through a maze of secrets and set-ups. The film's basic world is one where people in power will do anything to stay in power, no matter what they have to do to keep with. The film is populated with weighty actors playing the parts of government officials playing various roles in the system of power - whether it involves keeping the fact of the kidnapping of "the girl" away from the media or tailing someone who may know too much, they'll do what they need to do with cold swiftness.

There's maybe one mis-step in the film, a scene where Scott's emotions get the better of him almost too much to be believable. But the bulk of the film offers a consistently fascinating story of deception that's filled with atmosphere that's aided as much by Mamet's unique style of dialogue as anything else. The film's characters are eternally speaking in riddles and parables - it's a style of dialogue that sounds good even though it often seems deeper and more significant than it likely is. In some ways, though, that fits exactly with the sleight-of-hand games that Spartan's characters are up to. There's an evil sort of beauty in a good lie told well…Spartan has an old-fashioned genre hero chasing the truth behind a maze of well-told lies. As a film it relies both on how comfortable these old stories and characters are and how relevant they still are - when a governmental higher-up brings up "terrorism" as a keyword to explain a particular chain of events, it's clear just because it uses genre elements doesn't make the film irrelevant to the present.

Issue 22, April 2004

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