Giving Up the Ghost
The Spirit serves as a good example of why I hate hyping myself up for movies. Marrying retro action with comic book artist Frank Miller's distinctive visual stye, this film includes a combination I'd never turn down. Having grown up on the likes of Dick Tracy and The Shadow, I looked forward to The Spirit with fevered anticipation. Little did I know what a slipshod mess it would be. It's not such a grand comics-to-film travesty as the infamous Batman & Robin, but viewers will have no problem finding something to laugh about in this crushing disappointment.
After cutting his teeth co-directing Sin City, Miller makes his solo directing debut with this foray into the land of masked crimefighters. The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) is a former cop who was killed on the job and subsequently resurrected under strange circumstances. Armed with the ability to take a lot of physical punishment, he sets out on a quest to rid Central City of the criminal vermin that plague its streets. One night on the job leads to a run-in with the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), the Spirit's arch nemesis and Central City's de facto supervillain. The Octopus has his sights set on nabbing a crate containing the blood of Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules), which the already indestructible baddie believes will turn him into a god among men. But a slip-up lands the crate in the hands of Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), a master jewel thief and Spirit's former childhood flame. With his hands already full juggling a succession of lady loves, the Spirit takes on the task of saving the day and stopping his foe's bid for world domination once and for all.
With someone like Frank Miller at the helm, I knew The Spirit would be anything but traditional. What I didn't count on was how the the man's indecisiveness would cripple a truly jaw-dropping experience. First things first, Miller has viewers covered on a visual front. To put it simply, The Spirit looks fantastic, despite a couple of moments when it goes out of its way to imitate Sin City's signature style. Miller does a terrific job turning Central City into a noirish wonderland, a sprawling metropolis where every nook and cranny is used by the Spirit in his war on crime. But what he doesn't do is, ironically, find the right spirit to accompany the eye candy. The Spirit seems stuck in comic book purgatory -- a state of limbo in which it exists neither as a parody nor as a straightforward adaptation. It's some bizarre hybrid of the two, never coming to fruition and leading to many awkward scenes. Thus, we see some exaggerated characters like Dan Lauria's grizzled police commissioner who feel right at home, while chunks of dialogue like, "What smells...dental?" are too silly to be delivered with a straight face.
For as many times as Miller plunges viewers into the heart of darkness, he rips them right back out by getting a little too goofy with his cinematic experiments. Most of these scenes involve the Octopus, who goes through more costume changes in one film than some Rockettes do in their lifetimes. The idea of a criminal mastermind who enjoys parading around as a samurai and a Nazi might sound cool in concept, but on film, it makes you wonder if the kid at the concession stand slipped you some acid. The Spirit feels too much like a first draft, a mishmash of random ideas, and the audience ends up paying the price, teased by those parts of the film that really work and confused by those that look like they were filmed on Mars. The casting appears just as divided, separated into those who play their parts passably (Macht, Mendes, and Sarah Paulson as one of the Spirit's gal pals) and those who act like they're in a high school production of The Maltese Falcon. Jackson's performance as the Octopus is in a league of its own, setting a whole new bar for hammy acting.
The Spirit may be visually sumptuous, but when it comes down to story and script, hilarious results ensue. Miller's movie projects an inherent cheesiness which might make it a future cult classic, but it's not likely to win many fans nowadays.
MY RATING: ** (out of ****)
(Released by Lionsgate and rated "PG-13" for intense sequences of stylized violence and action, some sexual content and brief nudity.)