“The Spirit” is a movie that had potential to be very good. When I heard Frank Miller would be helming the picture, it gave me a sense of relief because I knew he was someone who would know what it feels like to have a property made into a film and the care it would take to make it effective. It was that close collaboration with Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller that made “Sin City” such a success. Since Miller had a friendly relationship with The Spirit creator Will Eisner you would think some care and detail would be taken to pay respect to Eisner’s vision. That’s not exactly the result we see on screen.
“The Spirit” is based on the comic series by the same name created by Will Eisner. The Spirit is a hero who was once a rookie cop by the name of Denny Colt who was shot down and murdered and came back from the dead with amazing healing powers (yes, it explained in the movie how this is possible). He then vows to dedicate his to life to protect and serve Central City and its people. The Spirit’s first love, Sand Saref, returns into The Spirits life when she is a suspect in the shooting of an officer, but The Spirit suspects that The Octopus is the real culprit. This is all a result of a heist goes wrong in which Sand Saref and The Octopus possess materials that each other want. Sand is only interested in the treasure of the Argonauts and The Octopus is only interested in a vase containing the blood of Heracles, which will bring him an unstoppable amount of power. It is up to The Spirit to solve the shooting and to stop The Octopus from his destructive goal.
Anyone who’s seen the previews knows right off the bat that it was shot in the “Sin City” style. This is fine given that that style is basically Frank Miller’s stamp and what he’s associated with. That in it self is not so much a problem, but 10 minutes into the movie you start to realize this is Frank Miller’s “The Spirit”, not Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Frank Miller has done amazing things for existing characters and using his voice to tell a new story (Batman and Daredevil come to mind), but this method in the film medium may not be his bag. While watching it you wonder if it really was necessary to do it in the style he chose and if it’s more of a copy and paste job of what he learned from working on “Sin City” with Robert Rodriguez.
One glaring difference from the original comic series is that the villain The Octopus is a distinct character rather than an ominous pair of white gloves or someone who is capable of taking on different identities. It really seems unnecessary to mess with that since it’s an established character and its trait, but Miller felt it was necessary to give the character a definitive voice and look. There are elements of the original characteristics of The Octopus, like the white gloves, but the rest is barely there.
During a recent press conference Miller proclaimed himself an “encyclopedia of film noir”. This is evident in his past work and it’s definitely the tone he takes on with “The Spirit”. The dialogue from the film is something right out of film noir, but what comes across seems overly exaggerated and somewhat laughable. This might be because of Miller’s directing because you had the same type of dialogue in “Sin City”, but it was delivered more effectively. It just ends up sounding jokey and stale in the film.
And if you’re going to have that noir-like dialogue, it would help if all the characters spoke that way. The one character in the film that doesn’t is Samuel L. Jackson’s character, The Octopus.
I love Samuel L. Jackson, I love his delivery and his “bad ass motherfucker” attitude. It’s something he does in about every film he’s cast in and he does it effectively. But when he does it in this film it seems like Miller abandoned the noir-like dialogue for that character and told him to just do what he always does. It’s almost jarring. It seems like you’re watching Jules from “Pulp Fiction” rather than a villain that would exist in the Spirit’s world.
Miller and Jackson claimed at a recent press conference that they sat down to visualize and find the voice of The Octopus. He said, “…Frank and I would meet and have lunch at the W and be very distracted by girls at the pool…”. Seems they were a little more than distracted judging by the end product.
The exposition is even a little poor. There’s a scene where The Spirit gives the back story of his relationship with Sand Saref, but he’s standing alone with his cat telling this story. There’s a similar scene where he’s standing on top of an elevator proclaiming out loud how he’ll find The Octopus, once again to no one. Sure, it doesn’t sound weird since it’s done in movies all the time; it’s just the execution that makes it strange and awkward. There’s even a moment where he speaks directly to the camera. I can forgive it if it was an element early on in the film or part of the overall narration of the film, but it wasn’t consistent of what was set up.
Miller decided to make the world of The Spirit more modern or rather a 40’s and 50’s setting with modern technology. Miller claims he wanted to give it more of a “timeless feel”. There are cell phones on which they talk and text on and weaponry that most definitely didn’t exist in the 40’s or 50’s (hell, even now). They even have clones in this movie. That’s fine and somewhat expected to do in order to update an older character. But the mixture isn’t always effective. Samuel L. Jackson delivers the most laughable line in the movie in which he tells The Spirit he’ll be “Dead as Star Trek”. Not only was it a ridiculous line but it also shows the flaw in trying to make it somewhat “modern”. It’s a little too ultra modern and breaks the feeling of the world created. It s just seems so out of place. There’s even a reference to the boy wonder himself, Robin. I’m willing to believe in a world that’s fantastical where a hero can do backflips up fire escapes and a villain can carry eight different high artillery weapons and shoot ridiculous amounts of ammo and it barely make a scratch on our hero, but when you make references like that, it seems to disassemble a bit of the illusion.
I understand the The Spirit comics varied from crime drama, mystery and comedy, but ultimately what it comes across as is a silly and violent movie with some characters you recognize from the original comics. It ran dangerously close to playing out as a Looney Tunes short. There are moments I expected them to hold up signs proclaiming, “Yelp!” and Acme brand products backfiring on them. There are just some cringe worthy elements in “The Spirit”. For instance, The Octopus’ henchmen are brainless goons which are clones (all played by Louis Lombardi) that wear shirts that say things like “Ethos”, “Pathos and Logos” and then as the film goes on they sport shirts that say things like “Dildos”, “Huevos”, “Rancheros” and toward the end “Adios” and “Amigos”. I wish I were making it up. Look, I love the brainless thug character as much as anyone else, but the way it was done in this film was almost painful and annoying.
I know it sounds like I hated this movie, but that’s not true. I’m a fan of the “Sin City” style. Some shots just look fantastic and some of the over the top fighting scenes are a bit of guilty pleasures. Then there are the women of the film. The women are absolutely gorgeous. Eva Mendes looks stunning in this and probably gives the best performance in the whole film. And even though the character Morganstern was a bit too mousey and silly, I fell in love with Stana Katic and am eager to see her in other films. Also, Seychelle Gabriel and Johnny Simmons who play the young versions of Sand Saref and Denny Colt are very well cast, and though their deliveries in dialogue may have been a bit over dramatic and over the top, they show a lot of promise.
The essence of the character of The Spirit is still somewhat intact. There’s something charming about how he falls in love with almost every woman he comes into contact with and their swooning towards him. It’s a bit deplorable at times to see how women do react with The Spirit, but there is that innocent playfulness that makes it very charming and is probably the closest Miller gets to the original character.
This film is Frank Miller’s “The Spirit”. Not so much him paying homage and putting what was on paper up on the screen to have it be as close to Eisner’s vision, but rather The Spirit through Miller’s eyes and mind. I understand more than anyone that adapting comics to film is almost impossible, but when you have something like this years “Iron Man” or ‘The Dark Knight” it’s proof it can be done effectively enough and can keep both fanboys and the general movie going audience happy. It’s not a terrible film and maybe with a few more viewings I can appreciate it more, but I have a feeling this might be a humbling moment for Frank Miller and may make him want to approach film a little differently.