Spiked with the bare-bones dialogue and the frayed-nerves action that have both made David Mamet famous and kept him from being a household name, Spartan poses question after question and situation after situation, keeping viewers guessing by the way it all shimmeringly unfolds.
The opening frames show a frightened woman running through deep woods, being chased by two men -- all three of them in fatigues. Are we in a slasher film here?
Probably not, as another man is casually watching the whole thing, maybe even making it happen. Sure enough, it has something to do with the military, and that man, Bobby Scott (Val Kilmer), is overseeing a training exercise. The woman is Jacqueline (Tia Texada) and one of the men is Curtis (Derek Luke). She's a knife specialist and he's someone who wants very much to be admitted to "the unit." Then she's gone, and there's about to be a one-on-one hand fight between Curtis and another man, in a closed room, the winner of which will make it to the unit.
But the fight is never seen, Scott leaves before he finds out who won, and suddenly it's as if we're whisked off to another film, another world. Scott has lost the military clothing and is in the midst of Secret Service personnel, and there's talk of the kidnapping -- or at least the disappearance -- of college student Laura Newton. Soon after, her boyfriend is being followed and one of her professors is being sought for questioning.
But who is this woman? Why is the Secret Service involved? And why is another woman following Scott, just out of his sight and range of hearing?
There are so many more questions, most of which are never answered -- but that's OK, because the questions and dead-end clues are sort of masochistically fun to follow.
But there are plenty of answers, even if no questions came before them. Scott is revealed to have a vicious violent streak, and the small scar on his face is nothing compared to the big ones on his back. And as tough as he is, as much as you wouldn't want to mess with him, his immediate superior Burch (Ed O'Neill) is even more menacing.
The film is full of instances of people starting to speak -- ready to spill some beans, to answer some big questions -- when it cuts to another scene, jumps slightly ahead in time, and whatever was going to happen has already happened. It seems that pretty much every character gets to utter the words "Where's the girl?" -- sometimes twice in a row, as if they didn't realize they already said it.
The atmosphere starts off grim and remains there. Talk eventually comes around to the probability that the girl they're searching for -- who is finally revealed to be the daughter of someone important -- has probably been taken to Yemen, where, because she's blonde and American, she'll be used as a sex slave.
"They don't know who they have," mutters one of the agents. But neither does the audience. And the search goes on, with all results turning out to be too little, too late. Every start turns out to be a false one. And even if there is a promising start, it soon goes bad.
Some of the story from the beginning gets worked into the bigger one. Curtis ends up working with Scott, and there's something of a student-teacher relationship going on between them. At one point Curtis whispers something to Scott, and Scott pulls him aside with instructions. "Don't whisper," he tells him. "It draws heat."
But their working together, and the eventual reappearance of Jacqueline, doesn't add up to anything but more questions. Is Curtis going to make a good agent? Is Scott turning into a rogue agent? Is the kidnapped girl somehow connected to the president of the United States? And who the hell is Stoddard (William H. Macy) and why doesn't he ever say anything?
Kilmer is great as a mystery man, a former Marine who is called in to help out with this case, and a cat with many lives, even as others drop violently around him. He's always had the face and build to be a strong silent type, and he does it here perfectly. He also, for reasons that remain unexplained, has more wardrobe changes than Julia Roberts had in Erin Brokovich.
After so many things go wrong for all of these characters, a daring nighttime rescue goes right. And then, as they inevitably must in this film, they go wrong again, with even more mystery to follow.
David Mamet has always enjoyed keeping audiences in big dark rooms slightly in the dark. There are always cards he's not showing. In this one, most of the cards are aces.