Imagine David Mamet rewriting his political satire Wag the Dog — in which a president and his advisers declare war to distract the media from the prez’s horn-dog activities — as a joke-free kidnap drama. Or don’t imagine, just pony up for the glum spectacle of Spartan, starring the always watchable Val Kilmer as Robert Scott, a special-ops legend assigned to find out why Laura Newton (Kristen Bell) — the troublemaking daughter of you know who (Mamet’s script never says) — has gone missing at Harvard. And in an election year, yet.
A task force, led by Stoddard (the great William H. Macy), determines that Laura was killed in a boat accident. But Robert and his protege Curtis (Derek Luke) smell a coverup. As one pungent Mamet line puts it, “You don’t have to fake DNA — you issue a press release.”
Mamet’s ear for the cadences of a con job is still finely tuned, as is his directorial skill at staging steely, unsettling action (check the scene at the boathouse). But the chase dawdles predictably until Robert traces Laura to a white-slave operation in Dubai. “You had to put on your thinking cap,” Stoddard tells Robert with a disdain for intellect that the blow-shit-up crowd is sure to share. Others, eager to tease out the moral puzzle at the film’s core, may wish Mamet had gotten there sooner.