The Spirit (2008)
Starring Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Louis Lombardi, Jaime King, Paz Vega, Sarah Paulson, Stana Katic and Kevin Arnold’s dad.
Directed by Frank Miller.
Confession time: I have never read Will Eisner’s The Spirit.
I’m glad I got that off my chest, even though my Geek Cred may have taken a bit of a hit, especially with my Comic Book Geek brethren. I should point out, however, that I don’t consider my dearth of experience with the character (and Eisner’s work in general) a drawback when it comes to the Frank Miller-directed film version of The Spirit. In fact, my nigh-complete ignorance of The Spirit and his exploits gives me a singular advantage over True Fans: I didn’t just watch a character near and dear to my heart ruined on the big screen. ((That will have to wait until Captain America: The First Avenger premieres in 2010.))
As a non-Spirit-fan, I actually had high hopes for Frank Miller’s film. I enjoyed the visual style, characters and story of Sin City (which Miller wrote and co-directed) as well as the spectacle that was 300 (directed by Zack Snyder, but based on a Miller graphic novel), so I expected that unleashing Miller’s style on The Spirit would be a lot of fun.
Visually, I was not disappointed. The Spirit has a very similar look to Sin City: mostly dark with (sometimes shocking) splashes of rich, vibrant color, the end result is something that looks like it jumped straight off the pages of a gritty graphic novel. ((Such as, say, Sin City.)) Every frame is a treat for the eyes, masterfully assembled with strategically-placed, high-contrast elements that bring an almost surreal sense of depth to two dimensions.
And then they had to go and screw up the whole beautiful tapestry by adding characters and a plot.
Gabriel Macht as The Spirit is…forgettable. There’s not really a whole lot going on behind the domino mask that’s going to leave much of an impression. He performs a running monologue in gravelly tones ((As an aside, it was one of these monologues that really drove home just how discombobulated The Spirit is. Here’s our hero, walking through the muck after an encounter with The Octopus, looking stern while his inner voice complains about the bitter cold wind of the city stinging his face…and around him snow drifts gently to the ground, not even the slightest breeze disturbing the flakes as they fall.)) and occasionally drops a line that was good enough to make it into the trailer, but beyond that…well, I guess he looks okay without a shirt on, but that’s not really a big selling point for me.
Eva Mendes as Sand Serif is pretty much the same as Eva Mendes as every other hot dame she’s played: a whole lot of eye candy that turns out to be nothing but empty calories. ((See also: Ghost Rider.)) The woman looks good, and the high-contrast visual style accentuates every curve of her body. Unfortunately, Sand Serif is a speaking role, and that’s where the whole thing falls apart.
I’d expect a wooden performance from Eva Mendes, but I hold Scarlett Johansson to a higher standard, which made her wooden performance all the more disappointing, especially since she wasn’t given anywhere near the camera-fondling Miller gave Mendes (and Paz Vega, whose part and costume were both quite small). Johansson, as Silken Floss, has the unfortunate distinction of sharing nearly every scene she’s in with one Samuel L. Jackson, and perhaps that’s why she comes across as a little stiff.
Time for another confession: Samuel L. Jackson is pretty much the only reason I ventured out at 10:30pm on Christmas to see The Spirit. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Jackson because he will agree to do a role just because it sounds like fun; ((See also: Snakes on a Plane.)) and it’s not difficult to see that Sam Jackson is having all kinds of fun playing The Octopus. But I’m not sure Frank Miller told Samuel L. Jackson what kind of movie he was making. This may have something to do with the fact that I suspect Frank Miller did not know what kind of movie he was making. Based solely on The Octopus, I would classify The Spirit as camp, approaching pure farce; and if that’s what the movie was supposed to be I wouldn’t have a problem with the over-the-top campiness of Jackson’s performance.
Except that Samuel L. Jackson is the only person gobbling up scenes like a starving man at the Hometown Buffet. To make matters worse, The Octopus goes through more wardrobe changes than Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde 3: I Can’t Believe They’re Still Making Sequels to Legally Blonde. The Octopus is first a pimp, then (for no apparent reason) a samurai, then a doctor/scientist, then (again, for no reason) a monocle-wearing Nazi General, then a pimp with a smaller hat than the first pimp. His on-screen antics elicited various audience members to blurt out on not one, not two, but three separate occasions, “What the [expletive]?” It’s fun to watch the man enjoy himself, but at some point you can’t help but wonder if he realizes that there are people making a movie around him.
And then there’s Morgenstern, the rookie cop played by Stana Katic. For reasons known only to…well, hell, probably no one, she speaks at roughly twice the volume of everyone around her. After the first two lines, I was reminded of Steve Carell’s character in Anchorman, who blurted out “Loud noises!” and “I love lamp!”, but at least he had an excuse for yelling: everyone else was, too.
Add characters that seem relatively normal (Ellen Dolan, played by Sarah Paulson, possibly the only truly sane person in the entire film) and those that are never really explained (Lorelei, played by Jaime King, some sort of Death-spirit who may or may not be entirely a figment of The Spirit’s imagination), and those that are just plain bizarre (Logos, Pathos, Ethos and many more, all played by Louis Lombardi), a hopping foot-head (that’s not a typo) and a scene that gives new mean to the term “rib-sticking”, and The Spirit is a giant mess that just can’t decide what it’s supposed to be. All kinds of nice to look at, but that’s about it.