As I’ve been transferring more and more of my films to digital and in doing so I’ve stumbled upon some movies I hadn’t seen since first purchasing them sometimes many years before.
One such work is the acclaimed playwright David Mamet’s 2004 directed/written film Spartan. Other than the fact that the film featured Val Kilmer as a secret service (or somesuch) agent searching for the President of the United State’s missing daughter (an early screen appearance by Kristen Bell) I recalled next to nothing else about this film.
After watching it, I can see why.
Now, before you assume I’m going to slam this film hard, don’t. Even with the considerable problems the films has (I’ll get into them after the trailer below), I’d probably give this film two to two and a half stars out of four. It was entertaining enough (especially in the early going) to interest me but the film’s later half had many problems…all of them related to the screenplay.
Since I’ll be getting into considerable spoilers here, let me say this: If you’re a fan of David Mamet’s work, you may want to give Spartan a look. It may not be up there with some of his best written work especially considering how much of the plot revolves around at times extremely hard to swallow coincidences (again, I’ll get into them in a moment), but the film isn’t a complete disaster.
Faint praise, I know, but I can’t deny watching the film to its end and therefore it did, at the very least, keep my attention.
Anyway, here’s Spartan’s trailer and afterwards we’ll get into some heavy story spoilers. However, in watching this trailer, it occurs to me this is yet another case where the trailer gives away too much, so watch at your own peril. What follows from this point on are…
Don’t say you haven’t been warned!
All right so the first part of Spartan introduces us to Scott (Val Kilmer) a no-nonsense “I do anything I’m ordered” soldier. He’s resourceful, he’s deadly, and effective.
Scott is brought in from a training mission due to a critical emergency: The Daughter of the President of the United States has disappeared. After a bit of investigating, the Secret Service team comes to believe she has been kidnapped. The kidnappers, it is also believed, don’t know who they have. These kidnappers are sex slavers. They kidnap women from the United States and force them work in a brothel in Dubai.
With a very tight deadline (the worry being that the kidnappers will discover who they have kidnapped), the Secret Service is on red alert, tracking leads and getting closer and closer to the ones that run the brothel. There is Mission: Impossible-style chicanery and misdirection, especially when Scott acts as if he’s a common thug to try to worm his way closer to one of the higher ups in the prostitution/kidnapping organization. Though they are operating without 100% certainty that they’re following the trail of the President’s Daughter, they forge ahead.
Shortly after the infiltration plan fizzles, news agencies report that the President’s Daughter’s body was found. She had apparently drowned with her teacher/lover and, the Secret Service group assumes, they were chasing another similar looking woman (again, they were never 100% certain the kidnapped woman was the President’s Daughter). The mission, it appears, is over.
But all is not what it seems.
Scott’s new partner, Curtis (Derek Luke), realizes that the media is being fed a pile of bull and it is here that those pesky (and truly hard to swallow) coincidences start to rear their heads.
A little earlier in the film and while staking out a beach house Scott and Curtis suspect might have the kidnapped President’s Daughter in it, three whooper coincidences occur:
1) Curtis sees squiggled in a window’s dust a sign attributed to the President’s Daughter (oh yeah, when kidnapped by sex slavers everyone leaves weird personal marks known only to the person making them and her boyfriend instead of “Please help me” messages!)
2) For no reason I could see other than to help Scott a little later on, a scarecrow is left on a seat behind a shack by the beach house. Said scarecrow is also conveniently facing away from the beach (I’ll explain why that’s important in a moment), and…
3) Curtis, when stationing himself to cover Scott while he enters the house just happens to lay his tarp on the ground where it picks up the President’s Daughter’s earring. The earring, a veeeery tiny little thing, just happens to have been dropped there for him to pick up and, also coincidentally, Curtis subsequently finds a nice photograph of the President’s Daughter in a newspaper that just absolutely beautifully displays her wearing this very earring. Think hard about this: Of all the family pictures I have with my wife and daughters (and there are many of them) I can all but guarantee you there probably isn’t a single one that I could identify an earring they’re wearing in it, yet Curtis finds a beautiful newspaper picture that is clear enough in showing a tiny earring on the President’s Daughter.
The very hard to swallow coincidences #1 and 3 are needed later on when Curtis convinces Scott’s “I’m a soldier and follow orders” protagonist to realize that his superiors are bamboozling the media and the world and that the President’s Daughter was indeed kidnapped and did not drown with her supposed teacher/lover.
The two return to the beach house to investigate but as they begin their search for the “sign” left behind Curtis is shot dead and Scott is forced to hide behind the (you guessed it) shack with that curiously placed scarecrow. He’s pinned down by the sniper who took out Curtis, so what will he do? How oh how will he ever escape? If only he had a means of diverting the sniper, of making him think he’s been shot…
Good thing there’s a damn convenient scarecrow within arm’s reach, eh?
Yup, Scott dresses the scarecrow in his clothing and the sniper takes the scarecrow out. Instead of then coming ashore (the sniper and his crew are on a boat just offshore) and making sure of the kills, they go away which in turn gives Scott time to escape.
Now, you would think this would end the preposterous coincidences, right?
We get a few more, including an elderly Secret Service (female) Agent that has Scott dead to rights and should have shot him the moment she suspected he wasn’t who he said he was (and while he was standing, by the way, just a few feet of the first lady!). Turns out she (coincidentally!) knows the First Daughter very well and has a stronger emotional attachment to her than her actual parents.
And then, later on, Scott heads out to Dubai and manages to get a hold of the First Daughter only to find that he’s been bugged. All appears doomed except, MEGA-COINCIDENCE a Swedish news group happens to be in the hanger where the final shootout occurs and they get footage of the very much alive First Daughter and are also able to flee the airport with her in tow.
The lie of the First Daughter’s death is therefore revealed though the principals behind it, we find, are clever enough to hide their devious deeds.
And so our movie ends. As someone who fancies himself a writer, pointing out all these outrageous coincidences is giving me a headache.
I don’t know the history behind the making of this film and it is very possible Mr. Mamet was in a rush to complete the screenplay and had to do what he could to make the story make some kind of sense. But in this case, the glue that holds the plot together is held by some very hard to swallow coincidences.
If the above bugs you, then steer clear of Spartan.