17 April 2009

That’s Not The Spirit, Frank

The Spirit (2008)
Directed by Frank Miller. Starring Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Sarah Paulson, Dan Lauria, Paz Vega, Louis Lombardi, Jamie King, Arthur the Cat.

I couldn’t resist putting Arthur the Cat on the cast list. He’s in it more than Jamie King, after all. And he does fine work.

The day that Bonebreaker posted his review of The Spirit coincided with the day it arrived in the red Netflix folder in my mailbox, so it seemed the right time to finally watch and review a film that nobody saw when it actually hit theaters. Even someone like me, a comic book-reading pulp fan who likes to wear fedoras.

Comics artist and writer Will Eisner created the character of The Spirit in 1940 as the lead feature in a sixteen-page Sunday supplement that appeared in twenty major American newspapers. Eisner had free reign to what he liked in the format, and created many of the artistic conventions of comic books that we take for granted today. He also brought comics to an adult audience—during much of the Golden Age, comic books were thought of as strictly children’s fare.

Although Eisner has enormous status in the world of comicdom, the average citizen doesn’t know much about The Spirit, which could partially explain why Frank Miller’s movie adaptation of it failed at the box office in December. The crowded holiday season was also a rotten time to release the movie. And coming after a summer with Iron Man and The Dark Knight, The Spirit simply had poor timing. It seemed more like a superhero film from the 1990s, despite its CGI-tech.

The film may have also confused a few viewers. A lot of promotion tried to make the film look like Sin City 2, since it uses the same “virtual studio” method and came from writer/director Frank Miller on his first outing of actually directing. But aside from the noir stylings and technology, The Spirit is lighthearted and comic in tone, more fitting the source material.

But ultimately, the core reason that the The Spirit didn’t perform is that it isn’t much fun. It looks cool—the fedora remains the greatest accessory for men in history—and has loads of gorgeous women in nutty retro-period clothing, but it’s a hollow enterprise filled with more scenes of “huh?” than “wow!”

The basic concept from Eisner remains identical. The Spirit (Gabriel Macht, fairly anonymous) is former cop Denny Colt, who died and was apparently ressurected, and then chose to take on the role of the city’s protector as a shadowy assistant to the police. He womanizes like crazy, although never believably, but his heart remains set on the vanished beauty of his youth, Sand Saref (Eva Mendes). Sand Saref comes back into his second-life right as the Spirit starts another battle with supervillain The Octopus (Samuel Jackson at his most hilariously, self-consciously bad) and sexy henchwoman Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson). The Octopus wants to obtain a vase that supposedly contains the blood of the hero Heracles, and he needs the Spirit to die for his plan to succeed. As the Spirit will discover, his “resurrection” has a connection to the Octopus and his quest.

Strangely, hardly anything actually happens during the hour and forty-eight minutes. The Spirit is a hero who manages to actually achieve very little, and he gives off no mystique aside from looking cool. The mythology behind him and his passion for his city never gets explored deeply past some silly voiceovers. Most of the film centers on gag sequences that are forced and not the least bit funny. Miller strives for the loose and often humorous tone of the classic Golden Age comics, but just doesn’t seem able to achieve it except in a flat, ironic tone. Perhaps this comes from his inexperience as a director, and the difficulty of working with a green screen for a set when you don’t have a background already working with actors.

The few times when the Spirit really goes into action feel awesome; I wish there were more of this, instead of spending time with dreadful scenes like the “Springtime for Hitler” re-inactment, or Samuel L. Jackson starring at a hopping foot with a tiny head and repeating the same line over and over. I’m glad Scarlett Johansson is around for many of these scenes, or they would fail totally. Johansson gives arguable the movie’s best performance, since she seems to know the right tone to hit even if the director doesn’t. I’m also madly in love with her, and this affects my judgment. Arthur the Cat is also superb, very naturalistic.

I can only recommend The Spirit to comic and pulp fans, who will take something away from it despite its problems. Viewers expecting Sin City, 300, or even Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow will walk away with their Spirits crushed.

I can’t believe I just made that pun.