Macho Macho Mamet
"I saw the sign!" Derek Luke exclaims in Spartan. This is his first mainstream Hollywood role since his debut as Antwone Fisher and the B-movie Biker Boyz. Here Luke plays Curtis, a novice in the special task force of the Secret Service, working under his superior officer, Scott (Val Kilmer). Searching for the kidnapped daughter of the President of the United States, the duo uncovers a ring of white slavers. Young Curtis shows the evidence of his sharp eye, good training and political sensitivity when he spots proof of the girl's sequestering. As he raises his voice and demands to be heard, the relationship between Curtis and Scott takes on a fascinating dynamic. The jaded Scott mellows, becomes benevolent and trusting. When the two agents uncover an in-house conspiracy and go underground to break the slave ring, Scott's instructions to Curtis became familiar; he refers to him as "baby."
This form of address is not sexual but it, too, is a sign. It shows us Hollywood's typical seduction of black audiences, through dangerously deceptive terms of endearment. As intimacy grows between Curtis and Scott, Spartan uses their closeness as a unique demonstration of military solidarity. These soldiers share a belief in duty, which translates as a dedication to American principle. The movie is a coolly played espionage action thriller, so there isn't much pretense of warm, fuzzy, uniracial compassion. Spartan suggests that something tougher goes on in the company of men; it's the brotherhood of sacrifice -- a very timely subject. This topicality gives Spartan some fascination beyond the usual genre exercise.
Note the remarkable flash in Luke's eyes when Scott tells Curtis he will have to kill on an upcoming mission. None of the many gangsta movies we've been subjected to has approached that complicated look of shock, fear and -- ultimately -- consent that Luke expresses. For a very brief moment, Spartan allows a black actor to demonstrate a rare complexity of feelings. Curtis carries a rule book given to him by his father that later comes in handy for Scott, who treats it respectfully. This moment comes across more credibly -- and more trenchantly -- than the clichéd father-son parallel between Robert DeNiro and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the maudlin Men of Honor.
Spartan upholds the classic myths of military masculinity with unexpected seriousness. There was a fresh take on the new military when David O. Russell's Three Kings showed the various antagonisms among Ice Cube, George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Spike Jonze; those Desert Storm enlistees brought all of America's social striations with them to the Middle East. Spartan is based in current geopolitical history but it is essentially a fantasy about teamwork: the common, soldierly sense of obligation that is needed to hold a military unit together; to compel men -- and women -- to make caring sacrifices (at one point a female secret service agent tells a suspected bomb carrier "I'm 10 minutes from the bomb squad. If it's Happy Birthday, let's do it now!"); and finally to unite a nation in war.
When Curtis announces that he saw the sign, it indicates his compliance with the military system. Having been taught how to look at the world, he has unconsciously come to a particular political perspective. His story is that of an apolitical kid's political indoctrination. Luke delivers this strong dramatic moment so effectively that he instantaneously becomes the film's hero. Some viewers, understandably swayed, may not realize how this scene manipulates our usual ambivalent feelings about black movie characters who are shown to be part of authoritarian institutions.
Derek Luke's open, youthful quality helps the film's writer-director David Mamet deceive the audience and win its assent to a story that isn't altogether flattering to African Americans' political and cultural participation. First, the movie never gets close to the startling topic of contemporary slave trading in Sudan. Mamet concentrates so thoroughly on the personal tension among his various G-men that they never engage in an actual political discussion. Spartan is the flip side of Mamet's political satire Wag the Dog. This time he scrutinizes the sacrifices of warrior grunts rather than political wonks and politicians. "I'm just a worker bee," Scott says, trying to convince himself and others that there are no moral quandaries connected to the cold, efficient execution of his job.
Mamet devises such a baroque political fable in Spartan that his implicit critique of perfidy and dishonesty in several recent government administrations (showing how it extends to overseas missions and costs the expendable lives of unempowered citizens like Luke's Curtis) gets lost in all the covert mystery and macho daring. This movie is one weird testament to the sacrifice of the working-class soldier. Through Derek Luke's involvement, it also makes a bizarre parallel of the way black actors are frequently sacrificed to the predictable routines of Hollywood action-film production. Just compare his character's destiny to that of Samuel L. Jackson in Twisted and Charles S. Dutton in Secret Window.
Any smart viewer of Spartan would do well to regulate their responses to Derek Luke's performance. We should think about it culturally and politically. In Hollywood terms this bright, energetic worker bee contributing to a politically loaded action movie is also a soldier. Look at the signs in Spartan: Luke undeniably contributes to another kind of ideological war, another kind of slave trade.
Armond White is film critic for the New York Press and the author of two books on pop culture.