If I don’t see a certain number of comic book movies every year, they threaten to revoke my geek credentials. But I was excited to see The Spirit, the first solo directorial effort of esteemed comic mainstay and Sin City creator Frank Miller.
The story of murdered rookie beat cop Denny Colt’s posthumous war on crime was never really all that compelling. Killed in the line of duty, Colt (played by perfectly servicable if slightly bland Gabriel Macht) mysteriously returns to life and decides to use his status as a postmortem P.I. to go places the police can’t and wear the ties they won’t.
He conspires to work with police commissioner Dolan ( an awesomely grouchy Dan Lauria (a.k.a Kevin’s Dad from The Wonder Years (side note: I really want to see a remake of Grumpy Old Men starring J.K. Simmons and Dan Lauria)) to rid central city of its criminal element. This mostly means battling the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson at his hammiest and least restrained) and dealing with an old flame turned art thief Sand Saref (Eva Mendes).
As an origin story, it works to set up the world that The Spirit operates in, but it lacks the pathos and iconic identification of a rocket hurtling to earth carrying the last survivor from a doomed planet or an irradiated spider granting amazing powers to a teenager who quickly learns the relationship between power and responsibility. (Hint: they correlate). The Spirit in the comics served as more a storytelling vehicle for Will Eisner to explore the bleeding edge of what was possible to convey with words and pictures. Will Eisner literally wrote the book on how to tell stories in comic books, and The Spirit offered fine experiments in composition and motion but the source material doesn’t scream out for adaptation to the movie screen.
Frank Miller is an odd choice to make a Spirit movie. Will Eisner created the character in 1939 and despite numerous revisions and reinterpretations over the years, The Spirit seems to work best with a kind of “Gee Whiz” optimism that pulls away from the babes and bullets of Frank Miller’s noir-tinted wheelhouse. I know, I know. The man sat at the feet of the Master and his close personal relationship with Eisner does give him a plausible reason to want to spearhead The Spirit’s transition from comics to film. But Miller’s overly muscular approach to visual storytelling doesn’t mesh well with the character. The result is a kind of Sin City-lite. The Spirit spends a good portion of the film offering tough-guy first person narration about how much he loves his city and his plan to kill his opponent The Octopus “all kinds of dead.”
This tone clashes horribly with the bits and pieces of screwball comedy and excruciatingly unfunny attempts to incorporate visual humor into the story. One scene where the Spirit finds himself suspended from a gargoyle and has to save himself by removing his belt and swinging to safety as his pants drop falls particularly flat. But there are a few genuinely funny moments. Jackson’s performance is way over the top, but sometimes his bizarre portrayal of the mad crime lord approaches camp brilliance. The scene where he lectures the Spirit while wearing a Nazi uniform for no discernible reason while his assistant Scarlet Johanssen poses under a picture of Hitler is delightfully surreal.
The recurring gag of the effect the Spirit has on the ladies is also pretty funny. It seems like the eponymous hero can’t walk more than a few steps in his city without some woman trying to jump his bones.
All the dames, broads, and skirts that throw themselves at him seem powerless to resist his charisma. Even the anthropomorphic personification of death is putty in his gloved hands.
Those of you of a more feminist or Freudian bent will likely have some serious issues with the way Miller depicts women. For all his obsessions with showing the female form in fetishistic display of all sorts of cleavage and the frequent reminders of The Spirit’s desirability, the narration constantly reminds us that he loves his city (who he personifies as feminine: ” My city screams. She needs me. I am her Spirit.”) more than any actual woman of flesh and blood.
But for all its flaws (though they are many) I left the theater feeling satisfied. In fact the film was almost exactly what I expected. The Spirit was an enjoyable movie that was kind of ridiculous. And kind of awesome. The awesome outweighs the ridiculous and that’s more than I get from most comic book adaptations. It looked incredible. Miller used a whole color pallet and he is obviously still in the process of honing his skill with creating moving images. The film could have been more dynamic, but it was Oh-So-Pretty. I imagine that those seeing Miller’s name attached and expecting a Sin City quasi-sequel will leave the multiplex disappointed, because the formal style of that movie informs this one, but the end result is totally different.
It is also kind of goofy. But if you are willing to go along for the ride, there are pleasures mixed in with the detritus. It gets:
Two and a Half Red Ties (Out of Five)