Writer/director David Mamet hits the ground running in Spartan and never pauses to let us catch up. There is no time for "inner life" or feelings – there is only the plot. Because of the breakneck speed and the lack of sentimentality, Spartan never loosens its grip on the audience. There are more plot twists and details in the 107-minute running time than most writers could fit in two films, but if the astute viewer can keep up it is incredibly rewarding.
The story centers on the possible abduction of the president's daughter – though in true Mamet fashion, no one even mentions that the missing girl is the First Daughter, it's simply assumed when her Secret Service detail is mentioned. The government is trying to track her down, including Robert Scott (Val Kilmer), an agent without a department who works only for the individual case of the moment. The government wants to track her down before her abduction becomes news on Monday morning, and Scott is the best hope.
Kilmer is in nearly every frame of Spartan. His is the audience's point of view; we see this world of government deceit and political intrigue through his eyes. Because of that, we are never ahead of the character. The plot twists are more difficult to anticipate. When the story does get turned on its head, it knocks us even further off balance.
Spartan also falls squarely in line with Mamet's ideas about writing, directing and acting in that he has no patience for scenes involving characters "emoting." There is nothing more boring in Mamet's world than a character involved in themselves to that degree; every person on screen in his work always wants something from someone else on that screen.
The cast is superb all around, with Kilmer turning in one of the best performances of his career. Between this and Wonderland, his career seems to be on a tremendous rebound track. Derek Luke plays a newly minted Ranger with such an earnestness/naiveté that he endears himself to the audience despite his mishaps. William H. Macy barely gets enough dialogue to earn himself a guest star role on some television shows, yet carries the film through its deus ex machina ending. Ed O'Neill and Clark Gregg also shine in smaller roles.
But even with Kilmer in every frame, this is Mamet's film. Everything from the now-standard dialogue (Kilmer compares it to poetry in the commentary track in its reliance on rhythm) to the plot twists to the overarching con game theme, Mamet is pulling all the right strings.