July 15th, 2004 Film, Film Reviews, Personalities, Xpress

Starring: Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, Ed O’Neill, William H Macy

Written & Directed By: David Mamet

Plucked from obscurity to take the pivotal role in Denzel Washington’s 2002 directorial debut Antwone Fisher, Derek Luke describes a surreal moment in his climb to success.

‘I used to love to dream. That’s the way I got to be outside the environment I was in, whether it was working in a store or whatever,’ Luke says. ‘What’s surreal to me is when I can look back. I live out here in LA and not too long ago I was on a street corner waiting to catch the bus, and on that very same street corner where I waited to catch the same bus for 5 years was my poster, and oh my God, I had a moment.’

While his role in the latest political thriller from the pen and megaphone of David Mamet isn’t quite so central, Luke seems to be getting used to the increased frequency of ‘moments’ as he talks about what interested him about the role of Curtis, young protege to Val Kilmer’s character.

As it turns out, it wasn’t lofty ambition to work with two Hollywood greats (Kilmer and Mamet), nor explore the depth of the character, but learn how to shoot and roll around.

‘What drew me was the excitement of the thriller,’ he says, ‘exploring a different kind of film I hadn’t had the chance to do, train athletically, shoot live ammunition, and that was a blast.’

Luke is disappointing talking about Kilmer, claiming he saw none of the notorious behaviour the star is famous for — tantrums and demands that have earned him an impossible-to-work-with reputation. But he’s surprising in describing writer/director Mamet — one of America’s most versatile modern writers — as ‘macho’.

‘As a director he knows what he wants because it’s on the page,’ Luke says, ‘but as a guy, macho, fun and playful at the same time.’

And where does the young actor hope to go from here? Besides expressing a desire to do a comedy film, he follows his instincts. ‘One of the things I’ve been listening to is the inner voice,’ he says. ‘It’s been steering me right and I’m excited about that.’

Having steered Luke straight into Mamet’s latest work might have been the most credible move the actor’s taken yet. After many critics and audiences wrote Antwone Fisher off as sentimental twaddle and the motorcycle action flick Biker Boyz tanked at the box office, working with Mamet is the best chance Luke has to prove his worth in a serious drama.

And Spartan is serious in a way it seems only Mamet can manage while screenwriters the world (or at least America) over continually treat audiences like idiots, hammering every joke home with the subtlety of a jackhammer, leaving flashing neon arrows on top of every clue.

While not the most exciting or even original political thriller, Mamet treats his audience like adults who know how real life works. You don’t know or expect what’s going to happen most of the time. When a pivotal character gets his head blown off less than halfway through the film, it’s a genuine shock in a way the directors of a thousand take-this-family-heirloom-and-give-it-to-my-girl-in-case-I-die scenes couldn’t understand.

Val Kilmer is a crack secret agent/urban commando on his way out of the service when all hell breaks loose. The US president’s daughter is kidnapped from college and a hastily assembled but frighteningly efficient team of secret service, FBI and officials figure they have two days until she’s reported missing, the media blows it open and the girl is dead.

Piecing together the movement of the girl’s last few hours by following her trail across Boston via a shady nightclub owner and a brothel madame, it soon becomes apparent the kidnappers have no idea who they’ve got — and that they’ll kill her when they do rather than spark an international incident.

The trail leads from an isolated beach house across the world to the Middle East where the first daughter has apparently been sold into sex slavery as part of the traffic in blonde western women.

What’s more interesting that the rescue mission thrills of the plot is the machinations of the political machinery behind the scenes we’re given a glimpse into; how it works, what it wants — even why it kills.

Kilmer plays an understated and fairly colourless character, his only stand-out feature a chilling single-mindedness for the mission; he’ll do anything’ anything, to carry out orders. That fact alone gives you an inkling into how the story will end up, but by the mostly pedestrian final 15 minutes, Mamet will have shown you 90 minutes of brilliant dialogue and political tension even if it isn’t the most cleverly constructed story.

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