In cinema, the shelf life for style is apparently three years. Back in 2005, critics were beside themselves praising the monochrome magic of Robert Rodriguez’s astonishing take on Frank Miller’s graphic novel noir, Sin City. From its hardboiled nostalgia to its star studded speaking order, it was seen as the next step in technology tweaking traditional storytelling. Now, a mere 36 months later, messageboard nation is ready to tear Miller’s solo project, an adaptation of his Will Eisner comic strip update of The Spirit, a new arthole. Where once things were fresh and flashy, they’re now called overly familiar. Where the comic book god was once praised as a new fangled visionary, this cheesy, campy creation is about to be crucified - and for no good reason, actually.
Central City is a metropolis awash in crime and corruption. Chief among the felonious perpetrators is scientific genius and murderous madman The Octopus. Along with his right hand henchwoman Silken Floss, he’s manipulated his own DNA to make himself invincible. Now he wants the fabled blood of Heracles to become immortal. The only thing stopping him is a pair of unnecessary advisories. One is Sand Saref, an international thief who is desperate for the fabled Golden Fleece that Jason and the Argonauts sought. The other is The Spirit, a masked crimefighter with a lot of questions about his own strange healing powers and a past as a member of the police force. Not even his doctor gal pal Ellen Dolan can figure him out. Naturally, all of these dispirit characters will come face to face when both the blood, and the fleece, turn up.
Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Paz Vega, Scarlett Johansson, Dan Lauria, Samuel L. Jackson
(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 25 Dec 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 1 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
Sure, it plays like a forgotten chapter in Miller’s continuing flirtation with old ‘40s cinema. Sure, it’s so over the top and outrageous that it begs to be mocked and ridiculed. Granted, Gabriel Macht is not the kind of marquee name (or recognizable face) in the lead actor realm that one relies on to hold a film together, and choosing him requires a leap of faith on the filmmaker’s part that’s hard for any audience to swallow. And just because you put a bevy of supposedly hot babes in your female-ccentric movie doesn’t mean the results will be sexy, captivating, or alluring. So what, exactly, saves The Spirit? What keeps it from becoming an irredeemable bomb ala Battlefield Earth, The Love Guru, or any other predestined stinker?
Three things, actually, and none have to do with Miller’s middling direction. Copping a millions moves from a half century of Tinsel Town trickery, there are only glimpses of the familiar graphic novel brilliance we’ve come to expect from one of his projects. There’s none of 300‘s slo-mo gore zoning, or City‘s slam bang Mickey Spillane on speed bravado. The color scheme stays squarely in the old school dramatics of black and white, and Miller’s eye tends toward the hero shot more than any meaningful moviemaking sensibility. Indeed, The Spirit could best be described as a series of static “wows” followed up by limited or almost nonexistent narrative needs. This is a movie that assumes a lot of plotline prescience. Miller clearly expects that the audience doesn’t want everything spelled out for them, so he simply tosses away the entire primer and goes bonkers.
What does work is Samuel L. Jackson’s bad ass kitsch as The Octopus. Sure, his version of the Spirit’s arch-nemesis is about a billion miles away from the character’s origins, but the shape-shifting savagery of his villain is a bad joke joy to behold. Just seeing this bad mofo in Nazi drag is worth the price of admission. So is his disconnected accomplice, Silken Floss. As played by Scarlett Johannsson as a half serious, half sketch comedy creation, this mannered moll is the perfect real world balance to Miller’s overreaching hypereality. Then there’s the dialogue, an amalgamation of every private dick diary entry meshed with tons of treble entendres. The result is like listening to a Depression era radio broadcast born out of a madman’s unproduced memoirs. There are times when you literally laugh with and at the movie for being so audaciously cornball.
And then there’s Gabriel Macht as the title character. Guaranteed to generate as much positive geek buzz as negative, he’s an interesting combination of naiveté and spree killer. It’s clear that The Spirit takes his crusade seriously, and during his pre-Octopus stand-offs, his manner is brusque, cruel, and sometimes rather heartless. He’s also a lug with the ladies, easily winning them over only to screw them in the less corporeal meaning of the term. While more or less an unknown, Macht makes all these divergent personality traits work. We never once doubt the Spirit as a hero, a heal, a protector and a pariah. It’s one of Miller’s main strengths that his leads comes across as flawed if still formidable. Even with his old school sarcasm, there is something noble about this vigilante’s cause.
Yet none of this will matter to a fanbase still reeling from the visual buzz created by filmmakers as imaginative as Zach Synder. Others will lament the return to Sin City‘s comic panel mockery. If you’re already predisposed to hate whatever Miller is making this time, skip The Spirit. You’ll just make yourself angry as everything you suspected about the project pans out as true. But if you’re willing to give this novice a shot at making his own statement, if you’ll let Macht and Jackson and Johannsson and the others gyrate within the material, then you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by the results. The Spirit is not a classic. It may even indicate that Frank Miller is the most flogged of the apparently already dead one trick ponies. Taken on its own terms, however, it’s a beautiful bit of balderdash.