Imagine the sci-fi spirit of Blade Runner crossed with the drug-induced musings of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and set to trippy animation. Now consider that this animation plays like a book by Philip K. Dick (who also penned Blade Runner’s novel) and you’re likely spinning with imagery; welcome to A Scanner Darkly. Set in Anaheim California seven years into the future an undercover narc named Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is assigned to spy on his druggie friends (Robert Downey Jr. Woody Harrelson Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane). They’re all hooked on Substance D the latest suburban drug and its side effects--including possible manifestation of separate identities--can be downright nasty. Unfortunately Bob the “scanner ” is hooked too and he leads the ultimate double life unbeknownst to him: By day he partakes in “D” consumption; by night he watches the surveillance tapes as a cop--not realizing he may in turn be spying on himself. Scanner marks a welcome return of sorts for all five actors to their more decadent (cinematic) days. Downey and Harrelson are up to their old Natural Born Killers tricks even though their characters share nothing other than insanity with those in Oliver Stone’s movie. Downey perennially the most underrated actor steals every scene he’s in with his character James’ mile-a-minute psychobabble. Not far off is Reeves who somehow grasps Bob’s drug-induced psychosis almost too well and is much more comfy (and likable) playing the central character in a film that’s not carrying an entire production company. We haven’t seen Ryder in a major release since ‘02’s Mr. Deeds and although her part isn’t as meaty as the boys’ she gives a compelling performance. And Cochrane whose breakout role was the dopey burnout in Scanner director Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused is an often funny casualty of the paranoia associated with Substance D. Linklater’s last release was Bad News Bears and his next is October’s Fast Food Nation. Clearly and to his credit no director offers us as much variety with so many of his films clicking on all cylinders; to his discredit however parts of his latest film don’t click. The biggest flaw is the animation which while truly amazing to behold detaches us. What began as a winning experiment--on his 2001 philosoph-ilm Waking Life--can no longer be dismissed as such but rather a gimmick behind which Scanner hides. Sure it’s apt for Dick’s futuristic dystopia but this film didn’t need any added complexity to bog our brains down. In addition Linklater’s Scanner outcasts fail where his others have been immortalized: They don’t endear us--yes that truth is faithful to the source material but films can’t get away with such disconnect. Ultimately all we feel towards the characters is fascination over their animated likenesses. But Linklater is praiseworthy for even tackling such a novel and the adaptation will find a fervent cult following.
Hardened by years of brutal but loyal military service special ops officer Robert Scott (Val Kilmer) is assigned to find the president's apparently kidnapped daughter Laura Newton (Kristen Bell). Pairing up with his protégé Curtis (Derek Luke) Scott works diligently with a task force of presidential advisors the Secret Service the FBI and the CIA to find her and through their investigation they stumble upon a white slavery ring in the Middle East which may--or may not--have some connection to Laura's disappearance. The straightforward search-and-rescue mission is soon bogged down in political machinations and the girl's abduction starts to look even more suspicious than it did at first. In fact the mission comes to an abrupt halt altogether when the girl is supposedly found drowned from a boating accident. Scott returns to his quiet life until Curtis shows up and proves that Laura is still alive and most likely trapped in the white slavery ring. In a race against time Scott and Curtis embark on their own unofficial rescue mission--and put themselves at the center of a dangerous conspiracy that goes all the way to the top of the U.S. government.
Val Kilmer probably won't be joining Mamet's dedicated circle of players--which includes Joe Mantegna William H. Macy and Mamet's wife actress Rebecca Pidgeon--any time soon. While it's clear Kilmer took the role to work with the talented writer/director he isn't well suited to deliver "Mamet-speak"--the rapid fire delivery of terse dialogue the writer is known for--and Kilmer looks uncomfortable trying to do it. The gifted actor who can't help but bring in his own quirky sensibilities to the part still hits the nail on the head as steely resolute Scott. But the minute he starts dispensing sage advice--Mamet-style--Kilmer sticks out like a sore thumb. Same goes for Luke (Antwone Fisher) who is entirely miscast as Scott's sidekick. Others in the ensemble however handle the Mamet chores more adeptly including Macy and Ed O'Neill (yes the guy from TV's Married ... With Children) as presidential aides.
Spartan's real problem however is that it's a thriller without much thrill. Mamet's expertise is in creating scenarios within a microcosm whether it's a world of con artists (House of Games; The Spanish Prisoner) salesmen (Glengarry Glen Ross) or even showbiz (State and Main). These Mamet films are even-keeled--almost devoid of emotion. He sets up characters and actions relevant to that particular world so when characters spout lines in Mamet's distinctive style it comes off as perfectly natural. Yet with Spartan Mamet is tackling a bigger grander picture and when his style is applied to the world as a whole it doesn't work. Plus in the thriller genre the audience needs to feel invested in the characters and Mamet's distant unemotional style doesn't lend itself to sending the audience's collective hearts racing. The only poignant moment in the film belongs to Bell as the wounded daughter who just wants a little attention from Daddy and the only truly exciting moments are during her rescue. That said however Spartan proves Mamet still knows how to craft a story. Although the script is at times vague and convoluted it thankfully never falls into any of the genre's usual patterns and it throws in enough twists to keep you on your toes.