David Mamet's greatest loves are language, games, and the slippery lines people draw between the truths and illusions of their lives. The three come together in his best plays, like "American Buffalo" and "Oleanna," and his finest movies, like "Homicide" and his new picture, "The Spanish Prisoner," a thriller so tricky that figuring it out is half the fun.
Campbell Scott plays Joe Ross, the inventor of a high-tech formula with a great commercial future. The company he works for is already counting the millions expected to roll in, but Joe is worried that his boss is planning to cut him out of the profits.
Determined to protect himself, he seeks advice from a new acquaintance who seems to have an inside track on the financial world. But the more Joe learns, the more concerned and confused he becomes. Are his associates on the level? Or is he caught in a con game that grows more unfathomable - and dangerous - with every move?
Like most Mamet stories, "The Spanish Prisoner" asks us to enter a special world more streamlined and stylized than real life. The dialogue is written in Mametspeak - clipped, rhythmic phrases sounding like a sort of punchy poetry - and the plot has so many twists and turns that inattentive viewers may get lost in its labyrinth.
It pays hefty dividends for those who stay with it, though, unfolding a string of surprises in a series of wittily written scenes. Also invigorating are the performances by Scott as the inventor, Steve Martin as his unpredictable new friend, Ben Gazzara as his possibly shady employer, and Rebecca Pidgeon as his would-be girlfriend.
Puzzle pictures are definitely in style these days - much of this movie is like a modestly budgeted version of "The Game," one of last year's most clever surprises - and Mamet is clearly a master of the genre.
* Rated PG. Contains a bit of violence and vulgarity.