Heaps of empty style and awkward exchanges are unleashed in The Spirit, a colossal misstep from comic visionary Frank Miller, who imposes his stark Sin City aesthetic upon his mentor Will Eisner's long-unappreciated creation. Painful in its presentation and content, this Lionsgate release crashes and falls at nearly every step of its torturous 100-minute time frame. Crummy when it should be comedic, and laborious when it tries to be literate, this is one of those book-to-screen adaptations that comic readers dread -- the moment that gives detractors a time to say, "See? We told you that the two mediums couldn't coexist." The fact that Miller is at the helm is even more of a reason for a pile-on, considering the creative downslope of his comic career just as Hollywood hands him total control. Unfortunately, it's quite evident that without his Sin City cohort, Robert Rodriguez, he's still far too green to realize what does and does not work on the screen. Despite his unequivocal role in bringing adult sensibilities to the printed medium (and thus helping their transition to future blockbuster films), Miller stumbles through his solo cinematic outing, leading many to question just exactly what he was thinking.
To understand the film's many missteps, one needs to understand its roots: comedy was always an element of Eisner's work, as was brooding storytelling -- yet here Miller amps both up to parodying degrees. In the first ten minutes, viewers are assaulted with a Looney Tunes-ish scene of broad comedic violence, where The Octopus (played to the hilt by Samuel L. Jackson) and the film's hero, The Spirit (newcomer Gabriel Macht), smash toilets over each other's heads in a drawn-out scene of ludicrous mayhem that does nothing but bore. Sure, there might be wisecracks, but the humor never connects. The same could be said of the visuals, which bounce back and forth from harsh contrasts (a la Sin City) to amateur-hour green-screen silliness. So, while Miller might have seemed as if he was honoring his master's work, what he didn't grasp was how it would all come off on the canvas he chose. For more proof, look no further than the pulpy dialogue, which, on the page, might not take up much room in panels, yet is drawn out to feverish lengths once it's said aloud.
As for the actors themselves, it's quite obvious that there wasn't much help being offered to them from the man behind the camera. Jackson continues to mine his loud-mouthed persona, bringing little of interest to the table, even when he's decked out in Nazi regalia and melting a purring kitten (yes, you read it right). Macht, on the other hand, proves that there might be something to this fresh face after all, lending The Spirit a gruff enough exterior that one wishes he were given a better stage to mine his heroic chops. Of the scores of females on display, they're all relegated to being eye candy for Miller to ogle over. And if anyone thought that Sky Captain suffered from stilted dialogue on a green-screen stage, they haven't lived until they've witnessed Scarlett Johansson's dry, droning delivery as she deals with Jackson's disposable stooges, all embarrassingly played with feeble-minded glee by Louis Lombardi.
Through it all, Miller's confidence in his vision is clear -- even if the end result is anything but. He's stringent to his own storyboards (which play out behind the end credits), and in dire love with the material (even amounting to him adapting his own take on The Spirit's wardrobe), but Miller's headstrong attitude only takes his filmed work so far. It doesn't help that his later work seems to be making a mockery of much of what made him edgy in the past. Whether it's the hard-boiled dialogue, his love for Converse sneakers, or his obsession with SS imagery, this is an artist who looks to be mining the same territory again and again, simply with tongue planted even more firmly in cheek as time goes on. With The Spirit, Miller proves that without a stable of effective collaborators to help him along the way, his filmmaking career will be a bumpy one, to say the least. As it is, the movie will go down as a bloated mess in dire need of sharp editing and a co-director or producer who will stand up and guide the production to a better place. We see what happens when those roles are not filled -- the final product might arguably be pretty (thanks to veteran Bill Pope's cinematography), but it most certainly is not a fun time -- nor is it in any way a true embodiment of Eisner's groundbreaking work. Better luck next time, Frank.
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- Released: 2008
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: Heaps of empty style and awkward exchanges are unleashed in The Spirit, a colossal misstep from comic visionary Frank Miller, who imposes his stark Sin City aesthetic upon his mentor Will Eisner's long-unappreciated creation. Painful in its presentation an… (more)