"The Spanish Prisoner" is, without a doubt, one of the worst movies I have ever seen. Most of the time when someone says this, they don't really mean that it's the worst; they simply mean that they didn't like it very much. But this film truly qualifies as one of the worst films I have ever seen, battling it out with such landmark cinema as "The Lost World: Jurassic Park 2" and "Batman & Robin".
At first, I thought my resentment of the film was because of the expectations I had for it. The girl I was dating at the time pointed it out, claiming that a friend of hers had seen it and loved it (who this friend is, I never found out). I found it intriguing that Steve Martin was in it, but it wasn't a comedy. David Mamet was the director and screenwriter, and he'd done Glengarry Glen Ross, which I liked. And when a critic compared it favorably to Bryan Singer's "The Usual Suspects", I was sold. But the truth is, "The Spanish Prisoner" shouldn't be mentioned in the same sentence as Glengarry Glen Ross or The Usual Suspects, because it's flat-out awful.
There are spoilers herein, but the writeup above contains them as well, and to be honest, shit doesn't really spoil anyway.
Cinematically, this film offers nothing. There are no well-framed shots, no interesting angles, camera tricks, nothing that even remotely makes you think about the visual style of the film. The U.S. Army is running recruitment ads during this year's NCAA Tournament that are more visually impressive than this movie. The locations are drab and unmemorable... even the Hawaiian resort looks less like a tropical paradise and more like Revere Beach with palm trees and a wet bar. The music was so forgettable that I can't even remember if there was any. None of these things by themselves turn me off the film, but they certainly make it difficult to watch in light of everything else wrong with it.
Start with the main character, Campbell Scott's Joe Ross. He's some sort of brilliant economist or mathematician. He's developed a way to make a huge sum of money using what is known as The Process. I loved this part of the film, especially since Mamet doesn't even hint at what The Process is or exactly how much money Ross promises can be made. All we know is that it's a lot. There's just one problem.
His character is a complete fucking idiot.
We all know people who are "book smart" but not "street smart", and as such it's easy to relate to someone like this, to believe that they're being swindled. Consider the Jamaican Switch pulled in "Matchstick Men". Not only do Nic Cage and Sam Rockwell explain as little as possible to Bruce McGill in order to get his money, telling him that they're going to tell him as little as possible is part of the con. It's almost poetic in its simplicity, because at any time, the pair can just walk away from the scam without revealing anything.
The con in "The Spanish Prisoner" is something entirely different. If Ross were to at any point put anything more than a cursory thought into what was going down, the entire con would collapse and everything would be exposed. But that doesn't happen. Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin, who
certainly proves he can be unfunny) is surprised that Ross doesn't have a Swiss bank account, so he opens one for him in less than thirty seconds. Ross, a man deep enough into finance to develop The Process, doesn't see anything wrong with this. Dell also gets Ross to sign a document, without reading it, stating his desire to defect
to Venezuela. One wonders why he didn't get him to sign over power of attorney, or perhaps legally change his name to Craven Moorehead or Heywood Jablowme, just for shits and giggles.
On top of this, once light dawns on marblehead, he goes to the FBI. Well, no, he doesn't go to the FBI exactly. He gets someone else to arrange a meeting with the FBI, who arrange to meet him in an unmarked van, and then verify his identity by asking him the maiden name of his paternal grandmother. He naturally assumes that this is how the FBI operates, and cooperates with them fully. As an added bonus, once he discovers the books have been switched, he can't make the next logical leap that the president of the company is the one behind all of this, even though the two of them are the only people who know what the book looks like. Oh yeah, he also manages to get his prints on the murder weapon, a Boy Scout knife used to kill George Lang (Ricky Jay).
It's unfortunate that Lang dies, because he's the only one in the picture who is even remotely interesting, although it's simply because his dialogue is cribbed from Thoreau and Twain. He's also the only one who doesn't speak with monotonous, emotionless precision. The rest of the dialogue is absolutely horrendous, which is really inexcusable for a writer of Mamet's stature. I've heard from Mamet fans that this was intentional on his part, and speaks to his brilliance. I'm sorry, but the Emperor isn't wearing any clothes. Intentional or not, every word of this disaster is wooden, heavy-handed, and witless. There isn't a single joke in the entire film. Not one. No offhanded remarks, no glib retorts, not a single humorous observation of the world. Each piece of dialogue serves only to bludgeon the plot turns into your skull.
Consider the 'fingerprints' scene mentioned in the writeup above. It's not as though Ross gets the idea after seeing an oily fingerprint on a martini glass or something like that. No, he's waiting patiently by the metal detectors at the airport behind a mother scolding her child for getting fingerprints on a book. "Look at this book!" she says. "I told you not to get your fingerprints on it! Look at the fingerprints on it! Your fingerprints are all over it! Now I have to clean these fingerprints off of the book." I am paraphrasing the dialogue, but it really is this obnoxiously repetitive. I was reminded of the South Park episode where Officer Barbrady repeats the phrase "The book depository would be a good bet" over and over again in his head, and still can't figure out where the shooter is.
Speaking of repetitive dialogue, there's plenty of it from Rebecca Pidgeon's character, Susan Ricci. Ricci goes out of her way to explain to Ross that she's just a plain, ordinary girl. Other people are something they're not. No one is who they claim to be. Except her. Yup, she's perfectly average. She is what she is. Imagine Dil walking around during "The Crying Game" explaining to everyone that she was a definitely a woman, and certainly not a man. That's essentially what Pidgeon does in this film -- hit you over the head with the fact that she's hiding something by telling you that she's not. I sat there watching this film, wondering how the hell she ever got the role. I figured she must have been a friend of the director (little did I know). Her performance is terrible, but it's not entirely her fault. The cast has nothing to work with here.
This film has it all: boring, moronic, one-dimensional characters; plot holes to sail the QE2 through; uninteresting dialog; hamfisted direction -- but as an added bonus, the ending is just horrible. I'm talking "Snake Eyes" oh-shit-how-do-I-end-this awful. Now, Mamet has this terrible habit of trying to be exceptionally clever. There's always someone in the film who has an almost divine perception of how events will unfold (think Gene Hackman in "The Heist"). No matter how bizarre or unlikely an event might be, when it happens in the Mamet universe, you can bet that at least one character has already anticipated it and made contingency plans. In this case, there are two characters.
Two Japanese tourists, who are in fact FBI agents, manage to get on the ferry that a half hour prior, Ross, Ricci, and Dell didn't know they would be on. They foil the evil scheme, explain once again that not everyone is as they seem, and how clever it is that they are disguised as Japanese tourists. And then the film ends. These two appear in the film once (maybe twice) before this scene, and then they show up to save the day. Just like that. It's a cop-out to writing a real ending, and anyone who sat through the film to that point deserves more. But in the grand scheme of "The Spanish Prisoner", it's just so fitting.
Dear God, even "The Glimmer Man" was better than this.