The Spanish Prisoner
David Mamet's latest film gets off to a slow start but offers huge payoffs.
Thursday, April 30, 1998
The first 15 minutes of David Mamet''s The Spanish Prisoner are artificial, stilted and awkward. Mamet''s celebrated textual minimalism is at odds with lush settings in a tropical resort and unnecessarily active camera work. But 45 minutes into the film all these criticisms add up to less than yadda, yadda, yadda; by that time, the script develops such a momentum that it tramples petty fault finding.
The film follows the misadventures of Joe Ross (Campbell Scott, primarily a stage actor, who co-directed Big Night with Stanley Tucci), who has developed "The Process." Although what the "The Process" is or does is never defined, we are given to understand that it will enable the company Ross works for to control the global market. The cabal of businessmen who control Ross'' company, headed by Klein (the venerable Ben Gazzara) are most concerned that "The Process" is kept highly secret so that it doesn''t fall into the hands of competitors. But, despite their avowed concerns, they won''t make any specific commitment to fiscally compensate Ross for his discovery. And that''s where the trouble begins.
While visiting the Caribbean resort of St. Estphen to pitch his idea, Ross encounters and is befriended by Jimmy Bell, a suave, distantly menacing stranger (Steve Martin). Back in New York, as Ross'' relationship with his company begins to deteriorate, Bell offers advice and serves as a mentor to the young Ross.
But nothing, absolutely nothing, is what it seems and Ross finds himself sucked into a quicksand maelstrom of duplicity and deceit. Think of a combination between Sleuth and The Sting with a dash of The Usual Suspects. As opposed to those movies, however, The Spanish Prisoner achieves its effect with outstanding ensemble work rather than star power.
Writer/director Mamet''s disparate cast works as an ego-less unit. You can''t really say there are standout performances; the script requires a sort of balance between roles that implies the situation has been created by all parties involved. But it is worth mentioning that, in addition to Scott (whose Esquire-ish good looks and vulnerable tenacity in this film could mark him for work in bigger films), Martin (remarkably restrained) and Gazzara, Mamet uses some faces that have turned up regularly in his works: Ricky Jay (Mamet''s House of Games and Homicide as well as Tomorrow Never Dies and Boogie Nights) offers a phlegmatic, quote-spouting friend and confidante; Rebecca Pidgeon >(Homicide, Mamet''s real-life wife and who originated the role of Oleanna) plays a doe-eyed, sprightly secretary who has the hots for Ross; and Felicity Huffman >(Things Change and off-Broadway work with Mamet) is a chain-smoking FBI agent.
Although The Spanish Prisoner is first and foremost a white-collar noir mystery, embedded in the story are familiar Mamet themes: Corporate greed can drive the most sensible of men mad >(Glengarry Glen Ross); women, despite their apparent delicacy and beauty, are not to be trusted >(Oleanna); a good man makes every attempt to maintain his honor and dignity in the midst of a crazy situation >(American Buffalo).
Too, those familiar with Mamet''s writing will recognize his circuitous dialogue with frequent repetitions of key words and phrases to hammer idea nails through even the thickest of skulls.
But that isn''t the point of The Spanish Prisoner. It''s a damn-fine mystery with a quickening pace that leads, inexorably, to a final enigmatic glance that makes an audience question whether it''s understood all the twists and turns even after they have been explained.
Although the first few minutes drag, don''t give up on the movie; there are big payoffs by movie''s end.