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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 28.81%
Average: 3.39%
Pretty Bad: 16.95%
Total Crap: 1.69%

5 reviews, 29 user ratings

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Spanish Prisoner, The
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by Brian McKay

"A disappointment from Mamet, and a waste of Campbell Scott"
2 stars

One of the worst things a con movie can do is give away the game too soon. When you know the hero is being set up too early on in the film, waiting for the story to churn along and, ultimately, confirm your suspicions isn't a lot of fun. It's even less fun when you know that he's being set up from the very beginning, and that everyone is in on it.

Such is the case with The Spanish Prisoner, a substandard con flick that is surprisingly lightweight for a David Mamet film. In fact, it's so watered down that it feels more like a forgettable T.V. Movie-of-the-week. The dialogue is particularly disappointing - not only is it lacking the crisp finesse of a Glengarry Glen Ross, but it's often outright stilted and clumsy and, in several instances, repetetive. Foreshadowing and the revelation of clues are delivered over and over again with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to a railroad spike.

Take, for example, a critical piece of evidence our Hero needs to prove he was set up - a book with a torn binding that the perpetrator may have left his fingerprints on. While the protagonist mulls about trying to remember it, A mother repeatedly chastises her child in the background because he tore his book and got his dirty fingerprints all over it. She harps on the fact not once, but three or four times until the protagonist remembers the book in question. The film is full of annoyingly repetetive and over-expository bits of conversation like this - bits that are completely unecessary because the film telegraphs its punches so blatantly.

The saddest part about The Spanish Prisoner is just how much it wastes the talents of Campbell Scott, whose bland good looks and subtle, understated performances have been put to such good use in films like Roger Dodger or The Secret Lives of Dentists. His work is fine as usual here, but he has so little to work with amid such an overwrought script that tries too hard to pull off the "twist within a twist within a twist" routine.

Campbell plays Joe Ross, a corporate scientist who has developed "The Process" What exactly this process is is never really explained - is Mamet trying to add another layer to the mystery, or was he just too lazy to think up something that sounds a bit more realistic? You be the judge. At any rate, whoever owns The Process stands to make a lot of money, and Ross's superiors want to make sure that The Process doesn't fall into the hands of one of their competitors. His bosses fly him down to the Carribean for a meeting, where he becomes acquaintences with Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin) through a contrived sequence of events. When Dell asks Ross to take a package back to the States for him to hand-deliver to his sister, Ross readily obliges. Yeah, because it's always a good idea to mule a package through customs for someone you've known for less than a day. And it's stupid lapses of judgement like this that tend to inspire more aggravation than sympathy on Ross's behalf when he ends up getting duped out of The Process and set up for corporate espionage and murder. For a man who should be trusting nobody, he seems surprisingly trusting of everyone - including the new office girl, Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon), an Italian-American girl who says things like "innit" and "Crikey!" and is generally far too talkative and annoying as fuck. Oh, and if you don't trust her from the moment you lay eyes on her - good call.

Steve Martin makes an admirable attempt at playing the villain - but like the rest of the script, his character is just too obvious. His attempts to secure Ross's confidence seem a bit too eager and hamfisted for him not to have serious ulterior motives, and the final confrontation between Ross and the people who set him up is cliche-riddled and ludicrous.

It takes nearly two hours for THE SPANISH PRISONER to chug along to its inexorable conclusion, and the only thing more sorely missed than the snappy, edgy dialogue we usually get in a Mamet screenplay, is a single twist or turn that manages to come as a real suprise or spark any real interest. Perhaps The Process should have stayed tucked away in Mamet's word processor.

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originally posted: 10/05/03 19:34:01
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Starz Denver Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/26/10 the dork knight Dreadful community player actors, reading lines like they're on Ambien.. 2 stars
6/13/09 Mary Predictable, boring, with lame "twists" 2 stars
2/11/09 Banana Phone good thriller with insane twists, drags a bit in some parts but overall very good 4 stars
12/11/08 djorian 3 un fracaso total! bad dialogue, bad casting, a lame plot, boring, a complete waste of time 1 stars
7/30/08 the dork knight why are these actors so bland? Is it on purpose? 3 stars
4/24/07 Will If you don't know the mom-kid scene was a parody you shouldn't review movies this smart. 5 stars
8/20/05 ES Dull, be prepared to sit and stare for a while, not worth the watch 2 stars
7/25/05 Jake A smart, complex, and ingaging thriller 5 stars
10/06/03 Jack Sommersby Smoothly done, but dramatically sparse and easily figured out. 2 stars
7/17/03 Mr. Hat Very very engrossing & enjoyable. Steve Martin is an excellent villain. Thumbs up 4 Mamet. 5 stars
4/11/03 Jack Bourbon Good, but The Water Engine was much better (TSP's predecessor, also by Mamet). 4 stars
6/03/02 R.W. Welch Twisty and involving plot line pretty well carried out though the ending is a bit too pat. 4 stars
4/02/02 lauren mccreight trys a little too hard.....Glengarry Glen Ross it ain't. 3 stars
12/24/00 joh wow-holy fuck was this good 5 stars
9/04/00 DarcyElaine I nearly spent the 2nd half of TSP peeking out from under my desk -- INCREDIBLY suspenseful 5 stars
5/26/00 Add Great stuff, totally involving with great performances from all concerned. See it now! 5 stars
5/15/00 seldom scene easy to follow and easy to guess wrong 5 stars
12/18/99 Matthew Smith a thriller that will suck you in from start to finish. 5 stars
9/25/99 KK 5 Stars all the way!!! Never got the recognition it deserved when it was released. 5 stars
4/15/99 Jon Jackson Really really good for 3/4 then it drops off a little yet noticeably 4 stars
1/26/99 donkey_dew I can't get enough of this. Mamet is king! 100% enjoyable stuff. 5 stars
1/14/99 Steve Kelley Fantastic film, all around. 5 stars
12/27/98 demon_shredder This movie rocked. David Mamet rules. 5 stars
12/20/98 Binky Wow! Where was this hiding when it was released!?! 5 stars
11/19/98 Doobie Boy This was an unexpectedly great film. I loved it. 5 stars
11/08/98 Christ Monkey Like THE GAME done better. 5 stars
11/08/98 {{{OZ}}} This is a good fucking film. 5 stars
11/04/98 Johny First half depends on your liking of deadpan dialouge. Second is loads of fun. 4 stars
11/04/98 Bluntman Loads of fun. Blows away THE USUAL SUSPECTS with its mind game plot 5 stars
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  03-Apr-1998 (PG)


  15-Oct-1998 (M)

Directed by
  David Mamet

Written by
  David Mamet

  Campbell Scott
  Rebecca Pidgeon
  Steve Martin
  Ben Gazzara
  Ricky Jay
  Felicity Huffman

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