I’ll say this for The Spirit: there aren’t many films in which a comic book creator’s full personality, from writing to composition to pacing, is translated to the big screen. Too bad the personality in question is that of writer/director Frank Miller and not original character creator (and godfather of the graphic novel) Will Eisner.
So in The Spirit you’ll see, in addition to the Sin City aesthetic, henchmen with ironically-labeled shirts and a tone that alternately mocks and encourages it’s hero, a no-nonsense, militaristic female cop with a tight-fitting uniform and sharp bobbed haircut who could have come right from any Miller written and drawn comic over the past two decades. She also sports a prominent Star of David, presumably to offset the extended scene of Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson in Nazi regalia, which culminates with a shot of ScarJo in front of a massive portrait of Hitler.
There’s no particular reason for the Nazi-fication of Jackson and Johansson. I suppose it’s part of Miller’s lunge to capture the anarchic spirit of his Dark Knight comics. That sense of anarchy is meant, I think, to be playful, but feels at best like Miller is aping his own better work.
When the Spirit (Gabriel Macht) and his nemesis the Octopus (Jackson) battle in a swamp, it’s a Looney Tunes playground fight by way of Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive films. Cinderblocks shatter on heads and the characters talk about fighting as much as they engage in it. The movie’s climax eventually builds to a miniature cataclysm that would love to be as insane as Miike’s final scenes in the first Dead or Alive. The ambition is unfulfilled; The Spirit is a pale spectre of post-modern action.
The Spirit was once a detective named Denny Colt who worked for hard-boiled commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria) loved his boss’s daughter Ellen (Sarah Paulson). But Colt was killed, as we see recalled through a scene in which Miller seems to confuse execution with ejaculation. (It’s white blood bukkake, and should be a hit on YouTube.) He rises more human than human, newly able to sponge up punches and bullets and navigate rooftops like a parkour god.
His nemesis, The Octopus, has similar powers. When the villain seeks out an urn containing of the blood of Heracles the Spirit learns uncomfortable details about how both men were empowered. The Spirit’s old flame Sand Serif (Eva Mendes) has the urn, and The Octopus’s right-hand woman Silken Floss (Johansson) has a plan to get it from her.
The women are as curvaceous as they ever were under Eisner’s pen — Miller gets that right, at least. But, ironically, in leaping from the page they’ve become one-dimensional. Silken Floss is reduced to a tarted-up intern who wants to get rich and look great doing it; Sand Serif is more or less the same character in a different outfit. Every woman in the film wants The Spirit, as we know courtesy of Ellen Dolan, perhaps the only vaguely real character in the movie. But wanting him and wanting money are the only characteristics they exhibit.
Miller has no control of tone and lurches uncomfortably through genres as he limps from scene to scene. Eisner could do seamless tone transitions in his sleep (see panels like these) but Miller is hardly so nimble. His comedy flails like a drowning child (see The Octopus crowing “toilets are always funny!” after slamming one down on the Spirit, or Sand Serif photocopying her ass as a message to our hero) and every stab at romance and drama turns into an awkward few minutes where characters bump into each other like cars sliding on ice. Instead of creating new heroic notes, he turns to David Newman’s crass appropriation of Danny Elfman’s Batman score.
And while Miller’s drawings have a stark power on the page, put into motion they’re choppy and inconsequential. The black and white aesthetic is overbearing, and shooting on greenscreened stages leaves the movie without any sense of place. Eisner’s strips always had an uncanny sense of space as character. (His talent for rendering cities really flowered in graphic novels like A Contract With God and The Building.) The movie’s Central City has none of Eisner’s charm; it’s fragmented and abstracted into something you wouldn’t even recognize from a fever dream. But you will recognize the outrageous product placement. In shots where nothing seems real, the Pepsi, Aquafina and Bulgari logos explode off the screen.
Every few scenes, I was surprised to find myself enjoying Gabriel Macht’s performance. Miller doesn’t let him do very much; he’s undermined by the leaden pacing and composition. But I can see why Macht seemed like the right choice. Eisner’s character could be both earnest and goofy, and there are times where Macht hits it.
Conversely, I don’t know what Jackson was instructed to do, because to all appearances he’s doing whatever the hell he wants. The script has him raving about eggs for reasons that are as clear as his Nazi fetish, and his psychotic rants occasionally get laughs. But this isn’t a ‘so bad it’s good’ scenario; I cracked up just because I couldn’t understand what Miller was thinking. It doesn’t matter who convinced whom that Jackson screaming “Not. A. Glob!” was a good idea (when the Octopus complains about having egg on his face) because the idea is terrible regardless.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that Miller’s work like The Dark Knight Strikes Again is a big middle finger to his fans, and I don’t think that he’s intentionally turned The Spirit into the antithesis of Will Eisner’s stories. But I also don’t think he has any understanding of what makes a movie work. I guess you could also see this as a two-hour Bond opening sequence. It has the same visual style and a similar lack of depth as an average 007 opener. But who wants to watch that?