While it may be David Mamet's biggest, most Hollywood production yet (yet, oddly enough, the least publicized of any of his efforts), "Spartan" is not David Mamet's finest effort; it is an improvement over Mamet's "Heist", but it doesn't quite reach the heights of the director's early works. Although it doesn't lose Mamet's very specific "voice" - his usual style of dialogue is still certainly in evidence - the film takes too long to get moving and never seems terribly dynamic.
Val Kilmer stars as Robert Scott, a Special Forces operative who is called in to work for the government when the president's college-age daughter Laura (Kristen Bell) has been kidnapped. Her boyfriend recently got into a fight with her, angry with her for drastically changing her looks and possibly having a fling with an older man. Given her change in appearance, her kidnappers may not know who they have - and it's only 48 hours before the press learns of the abduction - so the clock is ticking on her safety. I'll stop there on the plot before giving away anything else.
While Mamet never quite builds the kind of urgency I'd like from this tale, "Spartan" largely makes up for this with a series of excellent performances and strong atmosphere. Val Kilmer offers a terrific performance as Scott, remaining completely steely, cold and brutal. It's a fascinating, performance, suggesting a lot despite a performance that's not flashy in any way. Ed O'Neill, Derek Luke (as Kilmer's fellow operative), William H. Macy and othes offer excellent supporting work, as well.
While I was never entirely involved with the somewhat slow-moving "Spartan", Mamet gets stellar performances from his actors, while the story has more than enough twists and turns to keep the audience guessing about the outcome.
VIDEO: "Spartan" is presented by Warner Brothers in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is a fine transfer, although nothing too stunning. Sharpness and detail are generally first-rate, but there are moments during some dimly-lit sequences where the picture appeared slightly soft in comparison. Definition was fine overall, but the picture never appeared exceptionally well-defined.
While not suffering from much in the way of issues, the picture does sport a couple of concerns. Some slight dirt and a couple of specks were noticed on the print used during a couple of scenes. Light edge enhancement and compression artifacts were also visible a few times. While nothing terribly distracting, these instances did take away a bit from the overall impression. A little bit of grain was present at times, as well, but this could be an intentional element of the cinematography.
Colors appeared strong, with vivid tones and nice saturation. Flesh tones looked accurate and natural. Overall, this is a very nice looking if not remarkable effort.
SOUND: "Spartan" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. As with all of Mamet's prior efforts, this is largely a dialogue-driven effort, and the sound design reflects that. Despite the fact that this is a larger film with more action, the sound still remains almost entirely front-heavy. Sound effects are well-recorded and dialogue is easily understood, but surrounds are put to little use.
EXTRAS: Actor Val Kilmer offers a decent, yet slightly "out there" at times, full-length commentary. The track has quite a few gaps of silence along the way, but when Kilmer does speak, he provides some interesting tidbits about his approach to acting, working with Mamet and his approach to the character. The only other supplement is the film's theatrical trailer.
Final Thoughts: "Spartan" never really achieved the kind of intensity that seemed to be boiling under the surface, but the performances were excellent and the film offers quite a few twists and turns. The DVD from Warner Brothers provides fine audio/video quality, but little in the way of supplements. Recommended for Mamet fans, others may want to try a rental first.
The Film ***