"Spartan," the new David Mamet movie, is such a wickedly compacted ball of hugger-mugger that I'm afraid if I try to explain it, the thing will unravel in my lap. It isn't a hard movie to review -- when "Spartan" is good, it's surprisingly gripping and fresh, and when it's bad, it's just another overcooked Hollywood paranoid thriller -- but it is nearly impossible to tell you what the movie's about without giving up the twists that are its main source of pleasure. So bear with me.
Here's what I can tell you: Val Kilmer plays a ramrod-stiff Marine master gunner and member of a special-operations team so top secret even the movie doesn't have a name for it. His name is Robert Scott, although I don't remember any of the characters actually calling him that.
When the movie opens, Scott is summoned to Boston to deal with a crisis: a young woman (Kristen Bell) has gone missing from Harvard Yard. As dark-suited men confer in desperate whispers, it becomes apparent that the girl is the daughter of the US president; Scott and a new recruit named Curtis (Derek Luke of "Antwone Fisher") piece together clues that lead them from Cambridge to Beacon Hill to a sex club in the Fenway -- oh, that old place -- to a beach house in Essex.
One of the things "Spartan" does right is local geography, but don't forget Mamet was a Cambridge and Newton resident before moving back to LA to further wife Rebecca Pidgeon's acting career. (Thankfully, this doesn't extend to casting her in this movie.)
Another thing the movie does right is to reveal just enough information to get us to the next stage of the plot, and then completely rearrange the furniture once we're there. The daughter, Laura, may have been the victim of a sex slavery ring that has possibly whisked her to the Arab emirate of Dubai. Then -- wait a minute, maybe she hasn't. Hold on, maybe she's. . . In any event, after enough of these hairpin turns even a government secret agent has to go off the clock if he wants to get the job done.
You stay with it because movies that fake you out this smartly don't come around very often. "Spartan" lives up to its name with its clipped, Mamet-meets-military dialogue and in its vision of a terse man following duty wherever it might lead him. It also suggests what might result if John Le Carre's brain were to be transplanted into Tom Clancy's word processor.
There's only so far Mamet can go before he has to pay tribute to the gods of overplotting, though, and the movie eventually plunges down the slopes of silliness until it's hip deep. The revelation provided by an aging female Secret Service agent manages to be both logical and absurd, and only careful sleight-of-hand keeps "Spartan" from overt Arab bashing. Also, do we really need another climax in which a gun-wielding villain patiently explains exactly what he did and when instead of just shooting the hero?
The cast rattles off Mamet's densely coded spook-speak as if it were government-issue haiku -- this is the kind of movie where someone calls "the Chinaman" to "order a new skin" so he can "get into the tall corn" -- and the director keeps the visuals dark and off-kilter. Popping up in odd places are such actors as Ed "Al Bundy" O'Neill and William H. Macy, both playing agency suits with differing degrees of inspiration.
After a string of misfires, Kilmer's in dire need of career rehab, and he responds with a tucked-in performance that's the opposite of some of his previous grandstanding ("Island of Dr. Moreau," anyone?). He makes Scott an invisible man, which is entirely appropriate, and he keeps a straight face even as Mamet takes "Spartan" into its awkward home stretch.
Credit, too, to composer Mark Isham for thinking outside the box. Bagpipes while crossing the Zakim bridge? That's the kind of ridiculous touch that "Spartan" makes work more often than it has a right to.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.