Spirit, The (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Spirit, The Poster

The Spirit is an example of what can happen to a comic book-inspired movie when the sense of style becomes so pervasive that it overwhelms everything else, including an unremarkable superhero adventure. Unfortunately, the eye candy quickly grows stale and repetitive and, unlike Sin City, which layered the visuals with an engaging, fast-paced, smart-as-tacks story, The Spirit doesn't have anything as remarkable to fall back upon. Due in large part to the participation of adaptor/director Frank Miller (who is on his own here after helping out Robert Rodriguez on Sin City), the two films share a similar hyperstylized neo-noir look and feel, but that's where the similarities end.

In bringing Will Eisner's comic series to the screen, Miller has fallen back on similar techniques to those that worked in Sin City. His limitations as a director get in the way but, while he may not know what to do when there are actors on the screen, he and cinematographer Bill Pope make everything look impressive. For much of The Spirit, the color is so desaturated that the film appears to be almost in black-and-white (with the title character's red tie, which maintains its hue, standing out like the little girl's dress in Schindler's List). A flashback sequence is in sepia-and-white. Full color is used only for scenes of intense emotion. There's a lot of computer generated imagery and animation. Silhouettes and shadows play big parts in the visual palette. For a while, the appearance of the film is rich enough to envelop the viewer but it eventually becomes apparent that it's a distraction from the story's limitations. Elements of The Spirit are suspiciously like those from a low-rent Batman rip-off. The concept of a mysterious, masked vigilante working with the police to eliminate crime in his city sounds more than a little familiar.

The lead character is played by Gabriel Macht who, by donning a Lone Ranger-style mask, is unrecognizable as his alter ego. Hey, if glasses can confuse people from not seeing Superman when they look at Clark Kent, who's going to complain about a mask? As a result of something that happened in his past, The Spirit is pretty much invulnerable. He can be cut and shot but his body regenerates quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, the same is also true of his nemesis, The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson). In James Bond villain fashion, The Octopus wants unlimited power and it's up to The Spirit to stop him. Complicating matters is the involvement of Sand Serif (Eva Mendes), a world-famous jewelry thief who has something wanted by both The Spirit and The Octopus. Once the battle lines are drawn, The Spirit finds himself aided by Police Commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria) and his daughter, Ellen (Sarah Paulson), while The Octopus has a scientist sidekick (Scarlett Johansson) and several cloned idiot henchmen (Louis Lombardi).

At times, it's difficult to determine whether Miller intends for us to take the movie seriously or whether it's intended as a parody. The dialogue sounds like it was lifted from a potboiler, the acting is frequently embarrassing, and there are times when the drama is so corny that it borders on laugh-inducing. The effect kills any element of suspense or tension but allows The Spirit to be perversely enjoyed as unintentional comedy. Granted, some of the levity is in place on purpose, but I don't think Miller intended for viewers to be chortling their way through Samuel L. Jackson's way-over-the-top monologues. The Octopus isn't sinister; he's silly. And The Spirit is far too dull and personality-deficient to be able to hold together a motion picture. He's easily the least interesting of all the significant characters. And, while Nazi imagery is normally expected to evoke a reaction of disgust, its use here is more in the vein of "Springtime for Hitler." For that scene, I was wondering if Mel Brooks had been hired as an unpaid advisor.

With Sin City and 300 both generating healthy business at the box office, Frank Miller was able to parlay his name into a directing deal. The Spirit indicates that, while his ability as an illustrator is intact, he needs the guiding hand of another to keep things tightly focused, well-paced, and professional. The Spirit lacks the driving energy it needs to keep viewers involved in what's going on. It feels out-of-whack, as if so much effort was poured into making the film look cool that other equally important areas were neglected. The action is not exciting, the humor is a little too cheesy, and the drama is half-baked. There are good things to be said about The Spirit, but not enough of them to outweigh the bad.

Spirit, The (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2008-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1