It's something that's sometimes hard to find in movies these days. Filmmakers tend to want to walk a middle line, hoping to please the greatest number of potential ticket-buyers. For example, they may say they're making a superhero movie for kids, but if their commitment is weak they'll refuse to put a giant spaceman in it for fear the mainstream won't "get it." They waffle on their commitment and plop out a luke-warm film that passes with many but excites no one.
One problem 'THE SPIRIT' does not have is with commitment. Director Frank Miller has a vision for how Will Eisner's classic comic should be portrayed on the big screen and he ain't going halfway with it.
Like many comic book stories, 'THE SPIRIT' opens in progress, with its title character (ably played by Gabriel Macht) already in action as the crime-fighting defender of Central City. He quickly finds himself in the middle of a skirmish between a beautiful mystery woman (Eva Mendes as Sand Serif) and his arch-foe The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson, big as he wants to be). The scene becomes a slug-fest between Spirit and Octopus, two guys who seem impervious to injury. We learn that both men are linked by an unrevealed history, and both their stories are linked to Sand Serif, and the treasure she's stolen, as well.
And so we're invited into the world of 'THE SPIRIT', a timeless and super-stylized place where good guys are good and bad guys are insane, where everyone talks in colorful, meaty slang. A place that looks like an old-time movie, and bounces from one beat to the next like a comic book. A place that looks like it was drawn by a pulp artist, a place of grimy beauty and monochromatic artifice. One thing it certainly is not: it's not the real world.
Due to the unfortunate similarities between some of THE SPIRIT's visuals and the previous Miller-inspired film SIN CITY fans might be inclined to think that this is more of the same. It's not.
THE SPIRIT varies greatly in both tone and style. This movie has a playful, comedic sense. The Spirit is smooth with the ladies and capable in a fight, but that doesn't mean he won't be beaten up, stabbed and shot, and routinely humiliated along the way.
The dialogue here is much more Cary Grant than Mickey Spillane, painting the Spirit as a nice-guy hero rather than a burly, growling man-brute.
And while the movie has its share of stark black and white images, it feels more like an art book with from an artist who is willing to experiment with styles. Miller gives us Lorelei shimmering blue across the screen, or the The Spirit dropping from Sand Serif's giant pink lips like the subject of a Jim Steranko poster, or The Octopus momentarily turning into a cartoon as he chops one of his goons (and the movie screen itself) in half with a samurai sword.
The movie never feels like it was rendered carelessly. It has a ride to take you on and each frame seems like a fulfillment of a clear and specific vision by the director.
I'm not enough of a student of Will Eisner's strip to tell you if Miller captures the essence of it or not.
Fans will surely complain about seeing the Octopus' face, or that the film tampers with the Spirit's origin story or that Miller puts him in a black suit instead of a blue one.
Fans have been rightfully skeptical that elements of the film look more like Miller's SIN CITY than Eisner's artwork.
But when I see Gabriel Macht bounding over rooftops, looking not at all like Neo from the Matrix but rather like a fanciful figure floating on wires, I'm put in the mind of Eisner's gangly, lumpy drawings of his leading man bounding and nearly stumbling through a fight scene.
When I see The Spirit, hanging helplessly by his coat, having been snagged on a concrete gargoyle horn on the side of the Ares Hotel, it evokes one of the many Eisner drawing's in which The Spirit's suit has been shorn away in some embarrassing manner by a blade meant to kill him.
When I see Gabriel Macht rising out of the muddy waters of the movie, muck oozing off his still-in-place hat, it makes me recall any number of rainy Eisner drawings, where drops of hater hang off the brim like gluey blobs
For all of Miller's go-for-broke artistry THE SPIRIT isn't without its problems.
Miller occasionally subverts his classic tone by letting in modern slang and pop-culture references that break the mood. Notes such as Octopus talking about Sand's "thing for the bling", or Sand prattling on about "Robin the Boy Wonder", or the inexplicable dig at "Star Trek", these break the tune of the otherwise consistent noir-inspired score.
The entire b-plot involving the Lorelei character as some kind of mystical lady in the lake, beckoning our hero into the afterlife, could be removed without affecting the story in the least.
The most cringe-worthy moment in the movie is the climax of "Sand Serif's Secret Origin". It's an emotional turn for the character that's meant to explain her raison d'etre, but it's so clumsily over-enunciated that it rings completely false in both the real world and Miller's stylized film noir world.
There's a scene in the movie where The Spirit wakes up tied to a chair. There's a porcelain spit-sink next to him and he says something like "Where am I? It smells dental." He looks up and sees a giant swastika on the wall and mutters, "Great. Dental and Nazi."
The beat is hilarious and carries us into one of the most giddily demented sequences in the movie in which the Octopus and Silken Floss, decked out in full-on SS Nazi uniforms (for no real reason other than it looks cool), commence to try to torture The Spirit to death.
These are the kinds of loopy leaps, the hard left turns, that Miller is willing to make with this movie.
Miller is never overly self-conscious nor is he overly conscientious of your delicate sensibilities as a moviegoer. He's taking you to the place where he wants to take you. It's a place that's not like the real world. It's a movie that's not like the movie you saw last week. It's not even like Sin City.
You can soak in the eye candy, and laugh at the slapstick bits, and enjoy the peculiar way the characters talk, and cheer as The Spirit fights for poor, poor Muffin. You can laugh with the movie, and sometimes even laugh at the movie.
It's a wild ride and, if you're willing, you can go on that ride and have a blast.