Like many other Mamet endeavors, this one is 90% craftsmanship, 10% shitty craft, and not quite enough heart to raise it to the level of great cinema. In terms of procedural drama, this is Mamet at his best; for most of its running time, “Spartan” is deft, powerful, bracing and extremely deliberate. His work is as meticulous and as delicately balanced as a watchmaker’s, though on second thought, it might be more appropriate to liken him to the world’s most accomplished translator of Rube Goldberg principles into film.
Brawn and Brains
Let me be clear: for anyone who, like me, has longed for a really sharp sensibility — something several orders more advanced than the work of either of the Scott brothers — to be applied to an espionage thriller, then this is your movie. You’d be hard pressed to find a better example of the genre than the first two-thirds of this film, and even the magnificent corniness of its last third is only a let down in the context of Mamet’s own high standards.
But this is par for the course for this celebrated playwright cum filmmaker — his constructions are truly marvels of ingenuity, but he consistently fails to give them very much in the way of purpose or, more accurately, heart. In the end, they always leave the question, “What was the point of all that?” It’s no accident that the single best screen translation of Mamet’s work, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” was directed by someone else altogether who managed to infuse it with great emotional relevance. This makes all the difference, and if only Mamet himself could have summoned some of that, it would have made “Spartan” something remarkable, and not just a pleasant diversion.