March, 2004, Thriller

Directed by:David Mamet

Starring:Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, and William H. Macy

Nobody does testosterone-loaded dialogue better than gifted playwright/screenwriter David Mamet; from sophisticated drama, (Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna) to wicked satire, (Wag The Dog, State & Main) to hard-boiled crime dramas, (The Untouchables, The Heist) Mamet has the ability to lacerate with his pen. In this thinking man's espionage thriller, Mamet tackles corruption in high places, political spin doctors and the atavistic government agents trained to utilize violence, without question, in carrying out their superior's orders. Ambitious stuff; and since he's also the film's director, Mamet has to bear the responsibility for a movie with an exciting launch, an increasingly implausible storyline and an ending more worthy of a straight-to-video potboiler.

This is the kind of film that doesn't give it's macho heroes last names; Val Kilmer plays Scott, a seasoned government agent who's yanked out of his role as a bad-assed training instructor to help in the search for the President's daughter, gone missing from a Boston pub near her university. Working with Curtis, a trainee he treated contemptuously just days before, Scott traces the abductors to a seaside cottage, but misses the kidnappers, who are involved in an international prostitution ring. Then the press suddenly announces that the missing student has been found drowned, along with a male professor, near his abandoned yacht. Do the chief executive's handlers think the girl's freewheeling lifestyle will hurt her father's reelection chances, or is it the fact that her abduction was possible because Dad removed her Secret Service protection to assist in his philandering? Scott & Curtis are told to shut up and return to regular duty; they don't of course, tracing their supposedly deceased quarry to an un-named Arab country where the final reel's pyrotechnics spin out a laughably improbable ending.

 For the first half of this gritty film, Mamet puts his cast through some very hard-bitten paces, hurling the action forward with a minimum of mostly profane dialogue and enough surprises to keep him well ahead of his audience. It's only when this action melodrama slides into geopolitical cynicism that it begins to lag; Mamet's done "the big cover-up" storyline before of course, as satire in Wag The Dog. The basic implausibility in his plot worked acceptably there, when his screenwriting tongue was firmly in cheek--but here, utilizing the action-film genre, the premise simply spirals out of control and winds up looking cheesy.

Kilmer is fine as the granite-hard Scott, and Derek Luke projects just the right blend of youthful idealism, hero worship and integrity to soften Scott's shocking willingness to inflict pain on others to get what he wants. William H. Macy, a favorite in Mamet's stable of accomplished actors, makes an unaccredited--but very effective--performance as one of those faceless bureaucrats we all suspect of occupying the seats of governmental power. His flat intonations and bland expressions suit the purposes of this script perfectly, but Mamet ultimately fails to produce either a first class thriller or a piece of reasonably decent political commentary; if this is the director's fictional way of depicting this country's current political spin-doctoring administration, it fails badly.  But anything this writer/director does is worth seeing, if only to criticize its shortcomings. 

Since this one will disappear from theaters almost overnight, you should be able to watch in at home in the near future on video or DVD and decide for yourself.

The Verdict? Comes out of the gate beautifully, does the first quarter-mile at breakneck speed, then pulls up lame and finishes out of the money.   

Jake's Takes comments powered by Disqus