Just because the world is lousy with crime dramas doesn’t mean they all have to be lousy with predictability. Though certain elements of cinematic whodunits are bound to be repeated—red herrings, Ashley Judd—polite plodding toward an obviously foregone conclusion isn’t worth anyone’s 10 bucks. And there lies the difference between the success of Spartan, a girl-gone-missing exercise from writer-director David Mamet, and the failure of The Reckoning, a Paul Bettany outing about a 14th-century murder that won’t seem so mysterious to anyone living this side of the invention of potboilers.
Spartan stars Val Kilmer as Robert Scott, a career military officer who specializes in espionage. Scott, a “worker bee” of few words, fewer friends, and a Machiavellian attitude toward completing his assignments, is immediately recruited to join the hunt when First Daughter Laura Newton (Kristen Bell) disappears. Paired with one of his agents-in-training, Curtis (Derek Luke), Scott travels to the Boston streets where Laura was last seen and punches people until he connects her to an offshore slavery ring. The trail seems to go cold a few days later, however, when the media report Laura’s accidental drowning.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there, but the unexpected midfilm wrench goes a long way toward making this search-and-rescue tale above-average. Mamet’s script is a tease of just enough information—it’s not even immediately revealed that the missing woman is the president’s daughter—that tasks the audience with putting a few well-chosen (and sometimes well-hidden) pieces together. After the report of Laura’s death, which takes place in an election year, Spartan even introduces a layer of political commentary to the mystery of her disappearance, suggesting—let’s hope not with Wag the Dog prescience—the lengths an official will go for voter approval.
Mamet paints Spartan with his trademark noirishness, employing a dusky palette, black humor, and tight close-ups that drag you into a bleak world where sexual slavery is as unsurprising as corrupt politicians. Brutal without being unbearable, the film’s action is dotted with brief, unexpected flashes of violence—a suspect’s suicide while your focus is on the investigators, for example. More prevalent is Mamet’s distinctive tough talk, whose sharp rhythms add both casual color (“We’re shakin’ the trees”) and palpable tension (“Take your knife out.” Beat. “Take his eye out.” Cringe). And, as always, Mamet goes heavy on the expletives—though an early exclamation of “Forget that!” from Curtis makes you wonder if you’re watching a Bravo’d dub.
Kilmer is compelling but also occasionally cartoonish as the brooding Scott, who is posited as a sort of amoral, flesh-and-blood Terminator whose only concern is fulfilling his duty. The character’s unevenness, though, is as much the fault of Mamet’s going overboard once in a while (“I don’t want to get in trouble.” “Honey, you don’t know what trouble is”) as of Kilmer’s tendency to mistake wooden for understated.
Mamet’s poetic grit is handled a bit more naturally by the rest of the cast. Ed O’Neill’s Al Bundy–ness disappears as his hardened investigator schools underlings with lines such as “You’re fucking-A right they’ll kill her!” Luke’s performance as the eager, idealistic Curtis is solid if unremarkable. His character isn’t given as many Mametian back flips to execute, but his more pedestrian dialogue reflects a likable humanity that his automaton associates haven’t yet rid him of.
William H. Macy, a frequent Mamet collaborator, also makes an appearance, as a fellow agent of dubious loyalties. His small role is pivotal, providing one of Spartan’s final twists, yet he’s mostly seen rather than heard—which leaves you perpetually waiting for him to do something, anything. Such showy casting may initially seem like a distraction, but in the end, it’s just another way Mamet keeps you constantly on your toes.
Based on Barry Unsworth’s 1995 historical thriller Morality Play, The Reckoning sets its CSI in 1380 England—but switching up the century doesn’t make this story any less rote. The film opens with the fall of Nicholas (Bettany), a priest who is run out of his church when he’s caught sleeping with a parishioner’s wife. One night in the woods, he happens upon a troupe of traveling actors whose leader has just died. Noting that their group is one short and not knowing what else to do with himself, Nicholas persuades them to let him join.
When the actors arrive at the next village, they witness the sentencing of Martha (Elvira Mínguez), a woman convicted of killing a young boy. After a few sparsely attended performances, the troupe’s leader, Martin (Willem Dafoe), realizes that people are tired of the biblical programming of most contemporary theater and proposes the radical idea of borrowing plot lines from reality, beginning with the boy’s murder. Martin and Nicholas interview Martha, who is mute, to flesh out details of the tragedy. After her pantomimes inform them that she was set up, Martin wants to ignore her plight. Nicholas, haunted by the guilt of his adultery, is compelled to prove her innocence.
Before he leaves the church, Nicholas sermonizes that “this life simply has to be harsh to stop earthly happiness from being loved,” and director Paul McGuigan seems to take his cue from this joyless idea. The movie’s look, courtesy of cinematographer Peter Sova, is unrelentingly dark, with many scenes taking place at night and even the daylight episodes overwhelmed by the grayness of the poverty- and plague-ravaged village. An accurate rendering of the Middle Ages, perhaps, but combined with the leaden narrative, the effect is ponderous.
The audience knows early on of developments that are played for intrigue among the characters, including what Nicholas is running away from, and—even worse—the crime’s obvious culprit. A bit of sexual tension between Nicholas and the troupe’s sole woman, Sarah (Gina McKee), briefly enlivens Mark Mills’ talky, humorless script, but the attraction gets snuffed out in the pursuit of justice.
As elder player Tobias, Brian Cox is reduced to a one-note contrarian, and the only impression Dafoe leaves as the obstinate Martin comes courtesy of his clearly visible rib cage during some preshow backbends. Bettany, who held his own against Russell Crowe in both A Beautiful Mind and, especially, Master and Commander, is here shackled by Nicholas’ priestly nonpersonality. Questions about God and faith add some unexpected complexity to his quest when he goes mano a mano with the village’s evil ruler at film’s end, but overall, The Reckoning is both lousy and predictable. Even without Ashley Judd. CP