If there's one thing memorable about a David Mamet film, it's the dialogue. And he chooses his performers admirably (although his wife Rebecca Pidgeon occasionally makes for a sore thumb). And you get the pleasure of seeing regulars like Joe Mantegna, William H Macy and Ricky Jay peg roles of varying size gloriously -- it's almost like the way people figure in RGV productions (it's not about how big a star or actor you are; it's all about how much you fit the part and make it your own). What Val Kilmer does in Spartan deserves plaudits solely for this. Kilmer's had a strange ouevre -- it makes it difficult to slot him (shouldn't that be a welcome characteristic, though? Has mainstream cinema dulled me enough that I feel uncomfortable when I can't succinctly file an actor away in a slot on the genre shelf? but I digress ...). Kilmer imbues his "man who follows order" character with a sense of calm and confidence that is understated and yet noticeably ruffled (down-played again) when things aren't what they appear to be.
The film begins with no credits except the title, and yet, it showcases Mamet's abilities from the first words spoken. Most movies in this genre (a political thriller laced with intrigue and deception) rely on hi-falutin action, flashy chases, whiz-bang dialogue and a lot of exposition (which only dumbs down every character on screen to a predictable piece of putty). Mamet refuses to do that. Not once in the film are we told explicitly that the President's daughter has been kidnapped. Our intelligence is not insulted for a bit. Mamet presents all the characters doing their jobs, knowing each other, without any need for a formal introduction for "everyone who's here with a big bag of popcorn eager to have a good time". You can expect the twists, and, perhaps it's the film's only failing that they aren't earth-shattering (but then, since the tone of the film has been an understated one, why should the puzzle not unfold in a similar fashion?). The shocks/surprises that work best are the deaths -- they are quick, realistic, and don't linger on the screen too long (and hence the impact is heightened by the after-shock).
The first few scenes can throw you off with the wonderful combination of words and cadences. Mamet's work with dialogue is like the output of a fruitful collaboration between lyricist and music director in a Hindi film song: Each brings something to the table, and stringing the words with a tune and embellishing them with arrangements gives them a new character that neither party could provide by itself.
It's nice to watch a film that doesn't treat you like an idiot. Mark Isham's score passes muster, managing an interesting motif but nothing else as interesting throughout the film. There are some nice frames too: the introduction of the location that Kilmer walks Laura's ex-boyfriend to so that he can tell him more; the use of mirrors at the Black Light. There's the "cock-eyed like Picasso emoticon". There's the title itself [more about the reference in the film and the meanings we may imply may be found in another review]. Then there's a nugget of completion: Val Kilmer notes in the city, always a reflection; in the woods, always a sound; when Derek Luke asks him what about the desert?, Kilmer responds You don't want to go to the desert. Later on in the film, we find out why. Also noted: a poster of Soldier outside the Black Light, and a clip of Killer Bait [recently seen] playing at the beach house. The name of the book that Professor Gerald Sloane (IMDB lists this as "Sloan"; I wonder if I read that wrong) wrote is Le Roman Noir. The name of his boat is The Colophon. And the end credits note a copyright for 2003, even though everything on IMDB screams 2004. The DVD has commentary by Val Kilmer, but it didn't seem particularly interesting. If you want to take a stab at reading the screenplay, take your browser here.