Movie Review: The Spirit (2008)
Will Eisner’s The Spirit was a visionary masterwork of the comic book medium. Sure, Batman and Superman were first, and yeah, Spider-Man and the X-Men are more iconic, but Eisner created the blueprint that heroes like Batman and The Question would later follow. Ask any comic book creator what influenced them. They will mention Eisner’s creation. That goes perhaps double for Frank Miller, whose Sin City series (and later movie) owes plenty to Central City, the fictional town relying on The Spirit to protect her from villains as diverse as as, say, The Flash, who protects a different Central City altogether.
Where Frank Miller’s The Spirit goes wrong is that this is not Will Eisner’s version, and it is not simply enough to be a fan of a character to make something great from that character. Frank Miller, directing the movie, is so misguided and foolish that he makes my blinding, inexplicable love of Batman & Robin seem absolutely lucid by comparison. Misguided. That’s the word to use for Miller’s putting Samuel L. Jackson in a kimono so he can hack apart his henchmen Bushido-style. Foolish. To be honest, that’s probably the nicest word I’m able to offer up to describe his decision to put Mr. Jackson in full Nazi regalia, prancing around before a huge swastika, pacing back and forth between two huge pedestals topped with swastika-toting German eagles.
The Octopus, that’s the Spirit’s nemesis, is played by Jackson as, well, ridiculous to the point of disbelief. Sure, watching Jackson chew every piece of scenery within his field of vision is awesome in most of his bad movies, but this goes well beyond bad. The Octopus may be the worst movie villain of the decade, of the past two decades, or of any wide-release movie ever. They say that every great comic book movie relies on its villain. If they are right, The Spirit was dead on arrival in the first place.
The problem with the villain … is Frank Miller. The problem with Frank Miller is that he’s not really all about the good guy/bad guy dynamic. Take Sin City. Yeah, there are people to root for, but nobody except Hartigan is a real, honest good guy, and it is Hartigan who is screwed the hardest. The heroes of 300 are brave, but they are also bastards. Those are his own characters, and in Frank Miller’s world, orphans, brawlers, bastards, and broads are fine. Central City is decidedly not Frank Miller’s world, and his rules do not work there. I’m not particularly sure that they work anywhere but in Frank’s world. If Robert Rodriguez were tied to this film, it’d feel like a dry run for Sin City 2, but without Rodriguez, we’re simply left with the sense that Miller didn’t really do all that much behind the camera in 2005.
Behind the camera in 2008, Miller is lost. He tries and fails to infuse The Spirit with the same style as Sin City, and there is no substance to make up for it. That, again, is Miller’s fault, as he is the writer. Before this movie, he wrote parts of both Robocop 2 and Robocop 3. Studio executives deemed them “un-filmable” and ordered hefty revisions. Those same executives should have stepped in here. Nobody, not Gabriel Macht, not Eva Mendes, not even Samuel L. Jackson, could have saved this script. They all try. Jackson chews the minimal, digital scenery. Macht grumbles and groans through awful lines and film noir narration spoken to a cat. Mendez exudes sexuality, as do Scarlett Johansson and Jamie King, but it is not enough. Frank Miller, he is the problem, and, as writer and director, he is a rather large problem.
Were he the Octopus, he could be destroyed with the massive bazooka that a rookie cop pulls from the future. Or maybe it isn’t the future, but the present, which would explain the cellphones and Xerox machines. Heck, the trench coats and fedoras and long, burlesque show eyelashes suggest the 1940′s. None of it makes sense, and a lot of it is groan inducing. That the Octopus names his henchman as though he were a nemesis of Adam West’s Batman, names emblazoned on black t-shirts, is at first endearing until it becomes an awful way to throw puns at the screen (Adios and Amigos appear, fittingly, at the end of the film). The Spirit’s first fight with the Octopus is somewhat cool until the Octopus shrugs off about 57 blows to the head while submerged in septic sludge. The two will also shrug off giant wrenches, toilets, broadswords, gunshots, and the aforementioned giant bazooka, baiting a sequel that hopefully will never be brought up for discussion.
The Spirit. Directed by Frank Miller. With Gabriel Macht (The Spirit), Samuel L. Jackson (The Octopus), Jaime King (Lorelei), Eva Mendes (Sand Saref), and Scarlett Johansson (Silken Floss). Released December 25, 2008, by Lionsgate.
Paul Arrand Rodgers
Paul Arrand Rodgers has this blog, and that's about it.