The Spirit (2008) / Action-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, some sexual content, and brief nudity
Running time: 108 min.
Cast: Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Paz Vega, Louis Lombardi, Eric Balfour, Jaime King, Frank Miller
Director: Frank Miller
Screenplay: based on the comic book series created by Will Eisner
Review published January 12, 2009
Comic book visionary Frank Miller (screenwriter for the lackluster RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3) gets his first crack at a hands-on telling of one of his works, stylishly adapting the syndicated newspaper strip of the 1940s by comics pioneer Will Eisner, but with the palette of stark blacks, whites and shades of red that Miller is known for in some of his more acclaimed art work. Sadly, most of this effort seems to have gone in getting that certain look right, and very little went to making the rest of the film interesting, exciting, or even coherent for long stretches. One of the first problems with this approach is that we've already seen it before, in the big screen adaptation of Miller's own work, done by Robert Rodriguez in Sin City. It doesn't help that Miller's script appears to have been written for the confined spaces of a comic book panel, as dialogue is minimal, chock full of juvenile one-liners.
Gabriel Macht (The Good Shepherd, A Love Song for Bobby Long) plays Central City rookie cop Denny Colt, killed in the line of duty only to be resurrected by a mysterious underworld figure known as the Octopus (Jackson, Star Wars: The Clone Wars). Super-strength and the ability to heal himself help him become something more than he was before, as he continues to pursue the bad guys, most notably the Octopus (who has a similar invulnerability), as a nearly unstoppable vigilante. Meanwhile, a jewelry-loving ex-flame named Sand Seref (Mendes, We Own the Night) is on a crime spree of her own.
There's not much humor value to the film other than its absurdity, unless you think Samuel L. Jackson going over the top for the umpteenth time amusing. If you find the sight of someone taking a severed head and beating another person to death with it hilarious, perhaps you're wasting your time reading my rant. Sure, it's meant to be campy, but this is bad camp -- the kind that doesn't clue its audience on the joke. The film later becomes a pile of surreal gibberish once you see Jackson and his right-hand woman, Silken Floss (Johansson, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) donning Nazi uniforms in front of giant images in Patton-esque fashion for reasons that aren't quite explained.
Gabriel Macht makes for a good hero, though, as is the case with many of the lesser superhero films, the hero is far less interesting than the array of psychotic baddies he goes up against. There's little in the character for us to get to know, despite flashbacks to Denny Colt's childhood days and his burgeoning love affair with the materialistic Sand Seref. The actors look like they are having difficulty with the throwback pulp dialogue, with Jackson anachronistic in what is obviously a mostly ad-libbed performance. There's also little room for personality and nuance when events are played up at this ultra-heightened level of grandiosity. Magnifying the noise and energy to the utmost degree doesn't mask over the fact that there's no substance underneath the visual displays and hyperkinetic mayhem.
Miller fills his script with a good deal of homage to comic book creators of the past like Kirby and Ditko, but outside of comic book geeks feeling proud for catching the references, I don't see any entertainment value or artistic merit for their inclusion. One of the main problems with Miller's approach is that of tone. It's often difficult to determine when scenes are playing for tragedy or comedy, which is confusing to the audience at best, and completely distancing at its worst. Certainly, there is something comical about the cloned, bald, portly thugs, all portrayed by Louis Lombardi (Confidence, The Animal), with his perpetual grin and silly antics, sporting shirts that say Logos, Ethos and Pathos (Artistotle's forms of rhetoric), followed by an array of "-os" words like "Nachos" and "Dildos." But what to make of it? You recognize the attempts at humor, but aren't sure why it's supposed to be funny, or more importantly, what the purpose is to begin with. There's a scene where the Octopus clobbers the Spirit with a toilet (pulled from a swamp that has household appliances, apparently) and asserts that toilets are always funny, proving once and for all the lack of validity to that statement.
Fans of the original strip may be dismayed a bit, as Eisner's creation may have been goofy, but not nearly as dark in its humor or violence as Miller's interpretation. Although the film does capture the noirish detective fiction style of the original (complete with the city being another character in the film, though the city is mostly nondescript under all the stylish muck), this is basically a Frank Miller "Sin City" story using characters created by Eisner, so keep expectations at bay if you're looking for Eisner's Spirit in film form.
As boring as superhero flicks get these days, The Spirit doesn't have much of a spirit, unless you count mean-spirited. It seems only to exist in order to give Miller a film canvas on which to put his inventive visual imagination to work. It does live up to its name by bringing something dead back to life, but in this case, it's a far weaker entity than when it was once a thriving body of work. It's just a lot of pretty green-screened pictures in search of a compelling story. For the future, I think Miller should stick to what he does best, and let the visionary directors continue to build his reputation among the fanboys with his work.
©2009 Vince Leo