Original Spirit creator Will Eisner passed away three years before his series made it to the screen. Kimberly Gadette muses: talk about your mixed blessings.
Every now and then, an artist walks among us, an artist who is extraordinarily gifted in multiple disciplines.
Think Leonardo da Vinci, Noel Coward, Julian Schnabel, John Huston. But Frank Miller? Graphic artist, screenwriter and, um, "director?" Oh my, someone please call the studio's Errors & Omissions Department, stat. There's a misnomer of immense proportions being foisted on the filmgoer. Flag down the authorities – Johnny Law, Batman, The Shadow, Daredevil, heck, even Wonder Dog! As for The Spirit? No thanks, no need, maybe some other time, move along now.
Although Miller was given a co-directing credit for his previous theatrical outing of Sin City, the widespread rumor (verging on fact) was that the film was directed primarily by Robert Rodriguez, with an additional scene credited to Quentin Tarantino. Though newbies can and do direct – some quite successfully – Miller's directing chops, er, chop, is non-existent. The Spirit is a muck of amateurish posturing, replete with flaccid direction, a weak story and tedious characters.
As for the title? Ouch, that's some irony.
Based on Will Eisner's comic book series, a cop named the Spirit rises from the dead to fight the forces of evil threatening to overtake the streets of his beloved Central City. Though he looks like your average Joe dressed in a black suit, a hat, red tie and Lone Ranger mask, he may be immortal. As is his nemesis, Octopus, a homicidal maniac fond of eyeliner and multiple costume changes. Along the way, we meet bevies of bosomy babes who thirst for power over one or both of them. Lastly, there's the long-suffering Doctor Ellen, played by the long-suffering Sarah Paulson who once again brings a hefty dollop of prim condescension to her character (witness her religious zealot of an ex-girlfriend, Harriet, in Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip).
Though the empty bullet shell of a plot is a definite snooze, the question of how the Spirit's mask stays intact kept me going for a few scenes. Double-sided tape? Desperation on the actor's part: a refusal to show his face, no matter what?
But all is not bleak. Or, rather, it is, mirroring the same stylish monochrome of Sin City, the film's intermittent slashes of white slicing through a landscape of inky black, bleeding with a slight hint of red. But sadly, all style and no substance only goes so far. The same can be said of The Octopus: the villain is all dressed up but – truly – has nowhere to go. In particular, a Nazi-themed torture scene, with Jackson overacting to a fare-thee-well, is out-and-out ludicrous. No amount of costume, not even an oversized backdrop of Hitler himself, can force any real drama.
Confusion in directorial style abounds. In two scenes, Miller has his actors deliver their lines in a rapid patter à la the Rosalind Russell comedies of the late '30s, early '40s. In another scene, the Spirit breaks the fourth wall and addresses us: but only once, for no dramatic reason, and never again. He speaks in constant voiceover –sometimes in rambling thoughts to himself, and at other times he relates a back story, as if there’s someone out there who cares.
As for the unfortunate actors in the film: Gabriel Macht's Spirit is as colorless as the background; Eva Mendes acts with her posterior; Dan Lauria phones it in and Scarlett Johansson seems bored to tears (ours, unfortunately). Thankfully, there's only one henchman to contend with, played by goofy Louis Lombardi – times twelve – in a cloned bit about a lab experiment gone to literal pieces. Lastly, Jamie King's CGI sea nymph Lorelei is a nonsensical waste of time and money.
But then again, that could be asserted about the entire film.
For a great cinematic version of a noir graphic novel and a chance to see Frank Miller at his best … rent Sin City.
Rating on a scale of 5 masked avengers: 1.5
– Kimberly Gadette on The Spirit
Release dates: US: December 25, 2008; UK: January 1, 2009
Directed by: Frank Miller
Screenplay by: Frank Miller
Based on the comic book series by: Will Eisner
Cast: Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Dan Lauria, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson Rating: US: PG-13; UK: 12A
Running time: 103 minutes