Movies We Love: Spartan

Spartan (2004)

You need to set your motherfucker to receive.


Val Kilmer plays Bobby Scott, a selection member for an elite and very secretive branch of the military. His methods are anything but traditional, but his results are definite. When he is called in to help the secret service search for the missing daughter of a high-ranking government official (you can just assume that official is the President, though it’s never openly said), Scott soon realizes there is anything but a standard kidnapping taking place.

Why We Love It

In a word: Mamet. The story behind Spartan could have been handled with the minimal amount of effort put into characters and dialogue, and it probably could have still worked given a decent director and fine actors. This being a David Mamet films, you know you’re getting more than anything typical especially in terms of dialogue. The lines in Spartan crack like a whip and give you much insight into the characters who are delivering them.

This is particularly true in Kilmer who stands firmly with Mamet’s dialogue jabbing from his lips. Even from the very first line when Kilmer asks the young recruit, “You had your whole life to prepare for this moment. Why aren’t you ready?” you realize you are watching a character who takes charge of every situation he finds himself in. He understands how his world works, and if anything comes in to shake any of it up, he adjusts. Scott is a prepared machine always ready for the next left turn that might come out of nowhere.

Spartan is a film that certainly delivers a large amount of those left turns. The story progresses quickly whether it’s through dialogue or physical action. At 106 minutes long, Mamet packs so much into his story you might think it would get tedious after awhile. It never does. The story branches in such a way and goes through enough changes that you never find yourself even on the cusp of being bored.

It’s not particularly loaded with action, but once it hits, it hits with as much power and rapidity as the dialogue. Spartan isn’t really even an all-out action film. It’s more political thriller, so when the action does come into play, its for a purpose. The violence never feels bombastic. Some of it even comes way out of left field and catches you off guard, surprising you just when you might be getting comfortable in the ostensible downtime.

Mamet includes a nice supporting cast behind Kilmer, too, including Luke who gives an energy to the brash but half-cocked young recruit. Tia Texada, Ed O’Neill, William H. Macy, and Kristen Bell as the kidnapped girl all offer first-rate support.

Unfortunately, as a film Spartan didn’t hit very hard upon its release. It only made $4.4 million in the US and just over $8 million worldwide. It was released in March of 2004, and only found its way to 832 screens at its widest release point. It’s unfortunate it didn’t do better, because it is a film that deserves to be taken in by fans of the genre, fans of fine screenwriting, and fans of Kilmer. We know you’re out there.

Moment We Fell in Love

Again, this really comes down to Mamet’s dialogue. That first line hits hard, and Kilmer throws it like a pro boxer’s jab.

However, a moment early in the film shows us our main character isn’t someone who plays by the typical rules of law enforcement. After Scott interrogates someone rather heavily in an alley about the girl’s whereabouts, the questioned person complains he thinks Scott broke his arm. Scott grabs the guy’s arm, slams it into the side of a dumpster, and quips, “Now it’s broken.” You know from then on this guy will do everything in his power, completely moral or otherwise, to get this girl back home safe.

Final Thoughts

Spartan is an exercise in how best to execute this kind of thriller. It’s a thriller full of conspiracy-laden turns and curves, a windy road of political intrigue, blistering action, and equally snappy dialogue from one of the masters of the spoken word. Mamet’s screenplays should be studies in screenwriting classes, particularly how his characters speak and how their words shape and design their very character. Without Mamet, Spartan is a fine mystery. With Mamet, it’s a modern classic that deserves the recognition it was unable to obtain when first released in theaters.

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Jeremy's been writing about movies for a good, 15 years, starting with the film review column of his high school newspaper. He stands proud as the first person in his high school to have seen (and recommend) Pulp Fiction. Jeremy went on to get a B.A. in Cinema and Photography with a minor in journalism. His experience and knowledge of film is aided by the list of 6600 films he has seen in his life (so far). Jeremy's belief is that there are no bad films, just unrealized possibilities. Except Batman and Robin. That shit was awful.

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