The Spanish Prisoner

“The Spanish Prisoner” is an anomaly, a small, independent, intelligent film that completely defies the rules. It’s an exception and a alternate to the big-budget fair that is currently playing on local screens. Those looking for something other than big-screen romance (“The Horse Whisperer”), action (“Deep Impact”) or fantasy (“Godzilla”) will be pleasantly surprised by director-writer David Mamet’s tricky tale of con men and one poor sap who falls into their game.

Mamet has never been one to reduce his characters, situations or dialogue to the lowest common denominator. As a writer (“Wag the Dog”) and director (“Homicide”), Mamet has shown strength not only as a storyteller, but as someone who understands the human condition. His characters not only have something to say, they say it with honesty and conviction. Those traits are very evident in “The Spanish Prisoner,” a film that presents Mamet at his very best.

Defying conventional wisdom, Mamet has created an adult entertainment that not only challenges the audience, but does so within the confines of a PG- rating. Talk about taking a risk. That’s exactly what young and enthusiastic Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) takes when he begins to feel unappreciated by his boss. As the creator of “the process,” Ross is treated to an island retreat by his boss, Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), but would rather discuss his financial involvement in the sale of his creation.

His worries about be excluded from his fair share of the profits leads him to mysterious mogul Jimmy Bell (Steve Martin), who takes the concerned Ross under his wing and agrees to help him. With the help of his lovelorn assistant Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon), Ross agrees to hand over “the process” to Bell, who will help him secure his piece of the pie. What seems like a normal series of events actually turns out to bean elaborate con game, perpetuated by Bell to steal away “the process.”

When a slip up reveals the con, Ross turns to the FBI, who in turn set-up Bell. Or have they? Mamet’s script is filled with intelligent twists and turns that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Nothing is what it seems in this intricate thriller that slowly creeps up on you. It starts off leisurely, and before you know it, you’re hooked.

I love watching a film that dares me to pay attention. Mamet has filled “The Spanish Prisoner” with a first-rate cast. Campbell Scott is excellent as Ross, a man caught between a rock and a hard place for trying to do the right thing. It’s a pleasure watching Scott react to the seemingly uncontrollable events in his life.

Steve Martin does a superb job as Jimmy Bell, a character he was born to play. Slicker than whale excrement, Martin does a convincing job playing someone who doesn’t have a punch-line waiting on the sideline. Several of Mamet’s stock players come along for the ride, especially an effective Rebecca Pidgeon as the seemingly infatuated assistant, Ricky Jay, and Felicity Huffman as a pivotal FBI agent.

Like Mamet’s “House of Cards,” “The Spanish Prisoner” is as elaborate and convincing as the con game being dished up by the players. The tech credits are superior, including Carter Burwell’s dazzling score and Gabriel Beristain’s tight cinematography. While I don’t expect “The Spanish Prisoner” to create any ripples at the box office due to the competition, those seeking something more substantial in their choice of films will be sorry if they let this one slip through the cracks.



Campbell Scott, Steve Martin, Ricky Jay, Felicity Huffman, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ben Gazzara in a film directed by David Mamet. Rated PG. 112 Min.


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