First Daughter Shenanigans

Whatever David Mamet has been smoking, I’ll have a puff. It must alter reality to the point where nothing makes sense. In a thing called Spartan , his ninth film as an overrated writer-director, Val Kilmer, Derek Luke ( Antwone Fisher ) and Mamet stock-company regular William H. Macy head a cast of unknowns in a story of violence and military espionage so preposterous that it seems to be the work of aliens. Whatever David Mamet has been smoking, they must have all had a puff.

Far-out plots are coming at us in sections, but get this one: The President of the United States, a mercenary who is nothing less than an underground terrorist operating from inside the White House, goes to Boston to get laid and steals the Secret Service bodyguards assigned to protect his daughter, a student at Harvard, which leaves the pretty, blond co-ed in twinsets and pearls to be kidnapped from a brothel by an international sex ring that sends her through the pipeline to be sold on the white slave market in Dubai. I mean, where do they come up with this stuff? And what kind of fool would finance it for the screen, or pay to watch it? In a job that is becoming more of a punishment every day, this is the kind of pain I go through so that you don’t have to.

Val Kilmer, a good actor with either bad taste or a bad agent (or both), plays a farmer with a secret career as a government killing machine. Between slaughters he grows spinach. Who he works for is as baffling as the rest of this nonsense, but according to the press notes, it’s a special task force comprised of Presidential advisers, the Secret Service, the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., all of whom give him the legal right to maim and murder as many people as he chooses as long he doesn’t explain anything to the audience. So the daughter of the President of the United States is abducted by a gang that gets its instructions from an Arab man who places calls from a pay phone inside a state penitentiary, and it’s up to Mr. Kilmer and his loyal but naïve student turned partner, played by Mr. Luke, to break this pipeline before the girl is shipped to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile every suspect, every connection, every lead gets killed before they can lead him to the abductors, and then the White House announces that the girl’s body has washed up off the shore of Nantucket. Mr. Kilmer thinks the case is closed, but Mr. Luke drags him back off the farm with his obsession that the girl is still alive. Everyone heads for Dubai, where William H. Macy and the rest of the secret operatives assigned to protect the United States of America are determined to kill the First Daughter to protect the President and get him re-elected, and Mr. Kilmer is the only man who can save her. Too bad there’s nobody around to save him .

The dense plot snafus grow more ludicrous by the minute, and the questions mount faster than a herd of breed mares in heat. Why did the First Daughter, famous for cashmere and pearls, peroxide her hair and head for a bordello (in Boston ??) in the first place? Why did nobody from Harvard Square to downtown Dubai recognize this highly publicized and much-photographed First Face? (Would nobody in the media have spotted Chelsea Clinton in a cathouse raid near Stanford?) Why is the First Lady locked up in a loony bin? Why does the girl go hysterical in Dubai when she is snatched again by Val Kilmer, the only English-speaking eight-by-10 glossy with a preppy haircut she has seen in weeks? I know there’s nothing much to do on a Saturday night in the United Arab Emirates, but why does he break her ribs? Riddled with bullets, and with the entire cast in body bags, will he ever get home in time to harvest the pole beans? So much confusion, so little coherence.

The press notes also state that Mr. Mamet is “known for his caustic dialogue, incisive characterizations and skillful dramatic craftsmanship.” There is no evidence of any of the above in Spartan . Not one character makes sense, there is no shred of craft, and the script sounds like it was written by a 6-year-old who has accidentally swallowed a microchip. “What if we go off the meter?”; “You said never go off without a Nobu watch.” “Yeah, but this is the fleet, man”; “I saw the sign!” “Then you are truly blessed”; “The guardian level is a 1727-point-niner!”; “You wanted to go through the looking glass-was it more fun than miniature golf?” I wouldn’t dream of making this stuff up.

David Mamet is famous for trying to get enough “fucks” into a single sentence to break the Guinness Book of Records . But when it comes to espionage thrillers, he is so lost that you don’t know what anyone is saying half the time. In tripe like Spartan , only a toss of the coin determines whether “This is a smash-and-grab straightforward extraction” refers to a rescue mission or a root canal.

Viggo’s Brio Lifts Hidalgo

As horse operas go, Hidalgo seems headed for the same fate as Seabiscuit -applauded by audiences, appreciated by critics, close to perfect, but no box-office cigar. This is a shame, because it’s an exciting, colorful and very appealing movie. At the Saturday matinee at which I saw it, the audience was small but wild with approval. As a movie, it’s a tall-tale boys’-book adventure with illustrations of powerful horses flexing their muscled flanks in all manner of gravity-defying poses, but it is supposedly based on real facts in the life of Frank T. Hopkins, the turn-of-the-century equestrian hero and soldier of fortune who died in 1951, at the age of 86. Hidalgo was the loyal wild mustang he called “little brother,” who accompanied the adventurer around the world on his exploits and remained his closest companion until only death could separate them. (According to witnesses of the period, Hidalgo had magical powers.) They were a team of such magnitude that no movie is big enough to hold them. Hidalgo , keenly directed by Joe Johnston, does an admirable job of trying. There is plenty to look at, it’s safe for the entire family, and it is never dull.

Hopkins, played with leathery sandpaper brio by Viggo Mortensen, was a celebrated cowboy, horseman and sharpshooter, half-Indian and half-white, who worked as a courier for the U.S. Cavalry and witnessed the senseless and horrifying massacre of the Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890. Traumatized and haunted by nightmares that unbalanced him for the rest of his life, he wound up six years later touring the country as a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The opening scenes of Hidalgo are similar to The Last Samurai . The characters played by Tom Cruise and Viggo Mortensen are both disillusioned, disturbed by the past, drowning in whiskey and reduced to sad circumstances as nothing more than show-business clowns, putting on cowboy-and-Indians shows that distort the facts of the abuse and betrayal of the American Indians. Mr. Cruise escaped to a new war for justice in Japan and a new career in kimono fashions. Financed by the money and faith of his friends Annie Oakley (Elizabeth Berridge), Buffalo Bill (J. T. Simmons, the prison predator on Oz ) and Chief Eagle Horn (Floyd Red Crow Westerman), Frank waves goodbye to the Statue of Liberty as he and Hidalgo leave the New York harbor and head for the Middle East to enter the “Ocean of Fire,” the most dangerous horse race in the world. Three thousand miles through the Arabian desert, past Iraq and across the sands of Syria, Frank (an Indian who has always passed for white) and Hidalgo (a lowly two-toned mustang racing against 100 of the horse world’s finest and purest thoroughbreds) find themselves outsiders in both cultures. The terrain is so dangerous that many contestants perish, roasted alive, before the halfway mark. And there are other challenges: Frank faces castration at the hands of the event’s host, Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif), after he catches the infidel along in his tent with the sheik’s daughter, Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), who risks everyone’s life by falling for the brave American outcast. There’s also a murderous knife-throwing prince and a cold, conniving British aristocrat to fend off, as well as quicksand and a sandstorm that kills 11 contestants with one wind. Miraculously surviving every pitfall, Frank and Hidalgo are detoured by the kidnapping of the sheikh’s daughter, as well as the sexy but lethal Englishwoman (Louise Lombard) and her dastardly plan to orchestrate the death of Hidalgo before he reaches the finish line. Oh, yes. Did I forget the savage, man-eating panthers, or the falcon? Or the best plague of locusts since Luise Rainer won an Oscar fighting them off in The Good Earth ?

It isn’t likely that the same award awaits Viggo Mortensen, but he is brawny and forceful, the stuff of star quality, as he rises above every arduous hurdle to plunge on, undeterred, for the final stretch to the finish line in Damascus. Noted for playing the kind of rough trade that humps and knocks around the likes of Diane Lane and Gwyneth Paltrow, it’s refreshing to watch him play a hero for a change, carrying an entire movie with a soul and a code of values and ethics. The cinematography makes the vast beauty of Morocco doubly breathtaking. Joe Johnston, the director of Jurassic Park III , knows how to balance derring-do with nothing-doing: The action is awesome, and there’s still time for character development. And by no means should anyone shortchange the contributions of Hidalgo himself. He’s the most loyal and loving horse since Trigger. At one point near the end, someone asks Mr. Mortensen: “Is it true-as they say in western stories-that the cowboy rides away into the setting sun?” You bet, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.