Without a Trace - with politics

David Mamet's 'Spartan' is a thriller for thinkers.

"Spartan" is a good reminder that David Mamet is one of the most versatile filmmakers around.

One after the other, he'll direct a quick-thinking movie like "The Spanish Prisoner," an old-fashioned movie like "The Winslow Boy," and a hilarious movie like "State and Main," each with its own distinctive personality.

When he's good, Mr. Mamet is very good indeed, and "Spartan" stands with the best work he's done. It's fast-moving, unpredictable, and as tautly, tightly wound as thrillers get. It also has important ideas on its mind, bubbling below the surface until they fly vigorously into view at the end.

Val Kilmer does his best acting ever as Scott, a Secret Service agent who prides himself on a tough, often ruthless approach to his job. His adventure starts when the college-age daughter of a powerful American politician turns up missing from her Harvard dorm.

She might be off on a lark or she might be the victim of a kidnapping, perhaps instigated by foes of her father or of the United States itself. Scott springs into action on a trail that leads from New England to the Midwest to the Middle East.

The movie's Middle Eastern connection raised my suspicions for a while, since current international tensions make it all too easy for Americans to stereotype Arabs as sinister, inherently dangerous people. But any misgivings I had vanished as I thought about the story, which portrays the dehumanization of enemies as an evil that afflicts vulnerable people of West and East alike - including Scott, who never hesitates to kill anyone standing in his way.

The final scene makes this pungently plain as it shows the willingness of the American government, and its ubiquitous puppets in the media, to use any turn of events as fodder for its never-ending blitz of self-serving public spectacle.

At a few moments Mamet falls back on sentimentality to give the movie a charge of quick emotion. But aside from this the picture is consistently first-rate, assuming you can handle its intermittent bursts of savage violence. Political thrillers don't come any better.

Rated R; contains violence and vulgarity.

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