– Summary –
Director : Frank Miller.
Cast : Gabriel Macht, Sienna miller, Samuel L Jackson, Eva Mendes, Paz Vega, Dan Lauria, Scarlett Johannsen.
Year Of Release : 2008
Length : 90 Minutes
Synopsis: When the villainous Octopus hatches a plan to steal some ancient artefacts to rule the world, the mysterious vigilant known as the Spirit must use all his lady-killing ingenuity to stop him.
Review : Bizarre cross between Sin City and The Shadow, The Spirit lacks the one thing required for a film to really work: a coherent plot. Unfortunately, director Frank Miller has managed to retain the look and style of Will Eisner’s classic comic creation, without giving it any heart. The Dick Tracy-esque rotunda of weird characters (including Sam Jackson as a truly annoying chief villain) never really clicks into gear and we’re left with a frustratingly empty, but stylish, super-hero film.
Before I begin to review this film, I think it’s time to reveal a little secret. I’ve never read a comic by Will Eisner, save for an old Scrooge McDuck Disney title back when I was young. Until I began reading comics nearly 15 years ago, I’d never heard of Will Eisner at all, although his standing among those in the industry is legendary. So much so, the man even has the comic book equivalent of the Oscars, the Eisner Awards, named after him. It’s no surprise, then, when Hollywood came knocking, that his material would find it’s way onto the big screen. The Spirit, a comic series about a masked vigilante fighting crime in Central City, has been brought to life by Sin City co-director (and comic scribe himself) Frank Miller. Miller’s comic output over the years has become comic industry legend as well, so for him to step up and direct The Spirit was almost a fate accompli. After cutting his teeth with Robert Rodriguez on Sin City, Miller has used the same CGI-enhanced, green-screen stylised look for this film as well, something perhaps less creative than you’d expect from the great man. With a stellar cast, and an amazing source to mine material from, you’d think The Spirit would be manna from heaven to comic-book geeks and filmgoers alike, right?
You’d be wrong.
The Spirit has all the hallmarks of a great film, except for a couple of things: namely, a coherent plot and characters we care about. Lack of expositional set-up leaves the audience wondering what all the fuss is about, and while a key twist in the film gives us a glimpse of the central character’s past, it’s too little too late.
The film tells the story of Denny Colt, otherwise known as The Spirit, a Batman/Rorschach vigilante prowling the streets of “his city”, Central City. Denny fights crime with his fists, and his ability to regenerate from wounds allows him to adapt a devil-may-care attitude to his lifestyle. Capricious womaniser (much to the chagrin of his long-time love Ellen Dolan, played by Sarah Poulson) and scallywag, The Spirit has a past filled with sorrow much like contemporaries Batman and Superman. When Denny discovers that his arch nemesis The Octopus (Samuel L Jackson in scenery-chewing form) is hatching a plan to steal some ancient artifacts from the city to gain powers to rule the world, The Spirit must again spring into action. Also arriving in town, master femme-fatale and villain Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), a former flame of Denny’s who left him in pursuit of “bright shiny things”, a little like DC Comics Magpie. The Octopus, together with his female accomplice Silken Floss (Scarlett Johannson) have concocted a plan to finally rid themselves of Denny’s intrusion.
The script by director Miller steps up the action virtually from scene one, and while you might think a bravura opening involving a punch-up between Denny and the Octopus would draw you into the film’s stylised look, you’d be mistaken. The films major flaws, including a woefully inadequate script that gives the audience nothing but flammery, leave anybody watching a little confounded by just how silly it all is. Millers blatant stealing of Sin City’s style and technique is hard to justify, and feels forced, to be honest, while watching. It’s the tonal differences between each scene as well, that’s hard to enjoy. At times, the film feels like a parody, an homage to comic-genre films, while also being overly violent and narcissistic, a swerving of tone that leaps logic like a gazelle. Obscure characters like Silken Floss appear to be included only to pad out the storyline, making as much narrative sense as a red herring that’s actually important. The Octopus’ henchmen, cloned variations on a single form played by Louis Lombardi, are stupefyingly weird. Dan Lauria, playing the gnarly chief of police, is wonderful, and it’s great to see him in a role more suited to his screen persona, but even he seems out of his depth a little here. The real star of the film, Gabriel Macht, is superbly cast as the Spirit himself, and brings a zesty charm to the character; he’s criminally undone by a vapid storyline and some hysterically over-the-top effects.
The Spirit is one of those films that could have been awesome. The potential for a great film is enormous, the kind of stuff that makes Batman and his rogues gallery look positively second rate. But Miller fluffs his first solo-directorial effort, giving us a stylish, brutal, and somewhat downbeat video-game film lacking in real emotion and characters. An inability to decide if this film is action-lite or a dramatic exploration of vigilante justice ends up becoming a half-hearted mix of the two, and they don’t mix well. I will say that I was disappointed with The Sprit as a film. I was expecting a little more depth, a little more set-up for future sequels, but a lack of decent back-story doesn’t give us a reason to support the characters in their respective roles.
Frank Miller has real potential to direct a great film, especially a film based on comic-book characters: he understands them so very well. But he needs to realise that while film is a perfect medium for bringing comic books t life, the difference between the good and bad films of this genre remains one simple thing: the audience has to give a crap about the hero. An emotional investment in the hero of the piece is essential for viewers to hang their time involvement on. Miller’s ability to concoct a great action scene is excellent, his camera knows just where to be at just the right time to maximise visual impact. The problem he has is in stringing that impact out across a feature film. After the first twenty minutes of The Spirit, without any real exposition on plot, the audience starts to lose interest in why they should root for a character more likely to eye off the women than stop crime. And this, among all the others, is the fatal flaw.
For those of you looking for a Batman Begins style comic-book film, you might want to look elsewhere. Fans of Sin City’s impressive visual acumen will be left stunned that this film can achieve so little with so much. While I’d certainly say The Spirit is a long way from the miasma of Catwoman or the 80’s Fantastic Four, it’s one of the lesser quality genre pictures to come out of Hollywood in recent years. Ultimately, The Spirit is a disappointment.