As a writer known for his distinctively crisp, staccato dialogue, David Mamet naturally gets more credit for the words that do appear on the page than for those that don't. Yet even the one-word titles for his last two genre thrillers, Heist and Spartan, suggest meticulous refinement, a master butcher's effort to shave all the fat off the meat and bone. At this rate, Mamet's next work will simply be called Movie, and it will only exist in theoretical form, like some obscure element at the end of the periodic table.
Though its ruthless economy makes it seem chilly around the heart, Spartan transforms a premise unworthy of a third-rate paperback—the president's daughter is missing!—into a brisk and shrewdly constructed thriller, a screenwriting model worth more than a stack of Syd Field instructional manuals. Among other things, it's a triumph of forced perspective: Revealing the events from the termite's view of Secret Service agents on the case, Mamet never even shows the president's face, and he relegates the politics to subtle background noise. For most of the film, all that matters for Mamet and his investigators is the oft-repeated phrase: "Where's the girl?"
Using his imposing frame to great effect, Val Kilmer stars as the no-nonsense agent in charge of finding the First Daughter (Kristen Bell) before the press catches wind of the story. Working with greenhorn recruit Derek Luke, Kilmer uncovers a sex-slavery ring that might have abducted the girl from her campus, most likely unaware of her real identity. This discovery lends all the more urgency to the mission, because once her kidnappers find out that she's precious cargo, they'll almost certainly kill her.
With brutality and wit (two qualities that aren't mutually exclusive in Mamet's work), Spartan takes the form of classic police procedurals like 1955's Kiss Me Deadly, with Kilmer in the Mike Hammer role as a guy who gathers information with his fists clenched. But, Mamet being Mamet, there are other forces at work behind the scenes that, once identified, add a powerful layer of political subtext to what seemed like a straight-ahead detective story. In light of the Jessica Lynch story, in particular, the film shows what happens when an abduction and a rescue mission get tangled up in the spin machine. Using simplicity as another form of deception, Mamet lays out a hand of three-card monte for the audience to see, then tricks it into guessing falsely. In this case, it's worth getting fooled out of a little cash.