“I have a city as my weapon”
There is a lot to like about Frank Miller’s debut as a solo director. The Spirit is shot with a similar style as his last film, Sin City, based upon his own graphic novels, and the imagery is quite stunning at times. I’m not familiar with Will Eisner’s series for which the film is based, but after viewing scenes in stark black and white, with the bright red tie and blindingly white sneaker soles, coupled with the end credits artwork, I have to believe Miller did his best to bring those drawings to the big screen. The story too is intriguing, showing a superhero that works directly with the police; he is his own branch of the department, known by all and brought into cases like a detective. It’s a refreshing take on the whole vigilante stigma that will be explained once his origins are relayed. However, while there is a lot to like, there is a lot more that will just make you shake your head in disappointment.
I’ve been told that the comic is very pulpy and hard-boiled with shades of camp and I hope that is true because the film goes overboard in all of those categories. I enjoy a little humor and some fun, but when it’s inside of a film that is shot so darkly, so seriously, the juxtaposition becomes forced. There are plenty of good one-liners and the quick dialogue and rat-a-tat banter can be exciting, but mostly it is just plain laughable. What is The Octopus’s fascination with eggs? He does not like egg on his face, he hates those brown eggs that come from chickens, and one of his henchmen is named “Huevos”. Maybe I’m missing something there by not having read the comic; it just went way too long. Even the fight scene at the beginning between he the villain and The Spirit’s hero works only in moderation. You become intrigued by the fact neither can be hurt, they heal from every wound, and The Octopus’s cryptic talk about how they are two men uniquely alike makes you beg the question of what happened to them. However, the fight keeps going for ten more minutes—they bludgeon each other over and over again until they just decide to stop. I won’t even go into their horridly ominous declarations of how they will meet again, “real soon”, or how they’ll kill the other “all kinds of dead”. They just trade empty threats like that and go their separate ways … it’s all kind of surreal actually and no, toilets are not always funny.
The film is really just an exercise in excess and how, unless one is experienced enough to handle that much material, it will all fall apart as a result. As far as pacing goes, the story becomes disjointed with abrupt interludes, (a short scene between the police commissioner and his doctor daughter that really goes nowhere except to explain Denny’s relationship with Ellen) and all those somewhat stupid vignettes with Lorelei, the angel of death, and overlong exposition. Trying to go full-bore into style hurts scenes by making them too intricate and overblown. The obligatory bad guy telling the good guy his plan because the good guy is about to die scene lasted an eternity. Miller attempts to wow us with his sharp angles and quick cuts to close-ups dragging this Nazi-themed exchange out forever. Paz Vega is brought in for eye-candy and a necessary allegiance reversal before she is gone from the film again; The Spirit’s quips serve only to make The Octopus talk even longer, and being played by the master of bombast and extreme Samuel L. Jackson, talk he will; Scarlett Johansson’s speech does much the same in her matter-of-fact, emotionless delivery for the entire film; and the henchmen, (I like Louis Lombardi and the schtick is funny the first couple times), get overused, killing the joke before it even became cute. You watch the scene waiting for our hero to escape; you know he will, you just hope you don’t have to be bored so much waiting for the inevitable.
As far as the acting goes, besides characters being mishandled script-wise, all involved do an admirable job. It appears that they are all having fun in their hard-boiled way, hamming it up to the camera with broad facial expressions and over-the-top speech patterns. I’d be interested to see what a guy like Rian Johnson could have done with this, someone who showed a sense of rhythm and timing in his stylized speech with Brick, someone who has a better understanding of pace than Miller perhaps. I feel that the cast could have done it, but the editing and use of cutting from character to character rather than allow them to be in frame at one time, showing them interact in real time, just makes it clunky and off-balance.
With that said, I really liked Gabriel Macht as our lead, The Spirit. A relative no-name, this guy must carry the film on his shoulders, and I think he did the job well. There was always a sly smile on his face whether getting beat-up on the verge of death or flirting with the multitude of sexy women. He had the tone right and made it fun, even getting the deep raspy narration correct for the many “voice of God” moments as he explains what is happening. And since I mentioned the sexy women, there were some effective parts and some not so much. Eva Mendes was on the right page as well as Stana Katic, probably my favorite part of the movie as Morgenstern. She steals every scene she is in with her street cop accent and genuine sparkle in her eye with every compliment. Johansson and Vega, though, were purely eye-candy, giving some stilted performances. But I blame Miller for that, possibly being unsure how to direct them to get what he needed. Being coy and confident in your delivery is one thing, looking bored is a complete other.
The Spirit 5/10 | ★ ★
© 2008, Courtesy of Lionsgate/Odd Lot Entertainment.