It seems like there have been quite a few dramatic films over the past three years or so that have fallen into this trap of bad marketing. Curiously enough, they all seem to have the same narrative feel, from Heist to Confidence to Spy Games… and now Spartan. I sometimes have a hard time figuring out why some films become hits, and some don’t. (Of course, if I were a master at that, I would be the highest paid man in Hollywood.) I don’t understand how mindless films like Men in Black II…/i> can make their money back, but taught dramas like Spartan do mediocre work at the box office.
Regardless, this is a film that deserves to be seen by a wider audience. This picture is an exciting mix of dramatic sub-genres; part of the action seems to be drawn from CBS’ hit television show Without a Trace, part from Nicholas Cage’s 8mm, and part from any number of Tom Clancy novels. The result is a sharp film that is more concerned with the urgency of the story than it is explaining every little detail to the viewing audience. Names and faces aren’t important, just the mission at hand.
This is a film that conditions you to expect the unexpected. “A”-list actors play bit roles, the script moves fast, and there are more government conspiracies than an episode of The X-Files. This is certainly not as good of a film as, say, Se7en, but it certainly has more to offer than most of the big money making films in the Cineplex today.
There are many good things going on in the audio department, but one of the first things that I noticed was the abundance of low end coming from my subwoofer. This is not just a loud or powerful bass presentation, but the tones are truly deep. Many scenes seem to include a smooth, low hum rolling from the sub, which adds to the overriding tension and urgency inherent in each scene.
Gladly, this is not the only thing that is good about this track. Dialog is clear and surprisingly strong, almost as if the film was mixed for television instead of theaters. That’s not to say that it is too one-dimensional, however. The dialog also does a superb job of reflecting the acoustic nature of its surroundings. Be it a concrete room, a helicopter, or a chat on the beach, the voices are colored appropriately. The modern score is also nicely balanced within the soundscape, helping to fill out the silences.
The only complaint that I might have is with regards to the minimal use of surrounds. While I appreciate the fact that the audio is not too hyper-real, I would have liked to have heard a bit more going on in the back of the house. What is there is fine, I just wish there was more of it.
I truly have nothing negative to say about the video transfer on this disc. It is everything that it should be, and more. The visuals are crystal-clear, with no grain or blemishes of any kind. Black levels are as deep as space, and whites are crisp and sharp. In fact, the entire spectrum of colors is solid. Reds are true red, blues are spot on… all of the colors are simply perfect.
I was especially excited about the lighting of the film. Nighttime scenes were lit extremely well. This film has managed to simultaneously capture that elusive look of deep foreboding shadows and bright object outlines at the same time. The nighttime is almost blinding in its darkness, in its extreme contrast between that which is visible and that which isn’t. Many of the shots are painted with light, showcasing a blue side of the screen and a red side of the screen. This is not just an effort by the lighting crew to make sure everything shows up on camera, this is storytelling with light. The picture quality on this disc receives my highest rating.
Here’s where the film gets screwed by its own marketing department yet again. A studio should be proud of every film that it makes. If it is not proud, than it should not be made or released. I have no idea why they would not be thrilled with this film, but for some reason, it just didn’t seem to have the studio push that it deserved from the get-go. This lackadaisical approach to selling continues here, as the only extras on the disc are some trailers and a commentary by Val Kilmer. He steals the film anyway, so you might as well give the commentary to him. Unfortunately, his track is mostly dull, with long periods of silences. He begins to touch on some interesting topics, but tends to stop talking just when the subject gets interesting. He could have used a partner on this track… perhaps Mamet himself.
This is a well-crafted film that deserves better treatment than it has been given. The audio and video were of high quality, and the film is well above average. My only hope is that it finds a cult following on DVD, and that a special edition is released in the future. Unless that miracle happens, however, this is as good as this film is going to get. If you are a fan of political crime dramas, this one really is superb.
Special Features List
- Commentary by Val Kilmer