Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Spirit: Pale imitation

The Spirit (2008) • View trailer for The Spirit
One star (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and overly generously, despite lots o' gore, violence and gruesome content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.8.09
Buy DVD: The Spirit • Buy Blu-Ray: The Spirit (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy and BD Live)

Artistic sensibilities don't always mesh, and that must be recognized in the collaborative world of filmmaking.

It has nothing to do with respective ability; both individuals can be extremely talented, and yet be a bad "fit."
With dead cops on his hands and no firm leads, Commissioner Dolan (Dan
Lauria, right) isn't the slightest bit pleased with the vigilante tactics employed
by The Spirit (Gabriel Macht, left). Fresh-faced recruit Morgenstern (Stana
Katic), on the other hand, is cheerfully certain that everything will work out for
the best. Too bad the same can't be said of this film.

One would not (for example) assign Quentin Tarantino to adapt a Jane Austen novel. By the same token, John Sayles — known for intelligent and thought-provoking indie fare such as Lone Star and Passion Fish — would be all wrong for a mindless summer blockbuster.

And so it is that graphic novel impresario Frank Miller — the undeniable genius behind Sin City, 300 and Batman's comic book revival in 1986's The Dark Knight Returns — is wrong, wrong, wrong for the task of bringing Will Eisner's iconic Spirit to the big screen.

Miller's starkly garish approach to visual stylization, and most particularly his bleak view of human behavior, are wholly at odds with Eisner's much gentler characters and far more whimsical storytelling.

The result is a mess: a crazy-quilt effort to re-invent The Spirit as yet another inhabitant of Miller's Sin City universe. This film is all but unwatchable, its jokey characters wholly at odds with the vulgar plotline, its actors buried beneath the wholly computer-generated backdrops also employed for the film versions of Sin City and 300.

Never mind that such artifice is entirely wrong for The Spirit, whom Eisner deliberately placed on the believably mean streets inhabited by so many weary gumshoes in 1940s and '50s film noir thrillers. More aggravatingly, Miller's vision here is so uniformly dark — so starkly black and white, aside from occasional splotches of color (notably The Spirit's bright red necktie) — that it's difficult to see what's happening from one scene to the next.

It's a pity Miller didn't go all the way, and darken the screen to solid inkpot black. Then we'd have been spared watching the whole grisly thing.

Yes, this film actually is worse than the laughably corny 1987 TV movie with Sam Jones. At least than one got the tone right.

Full disclosure alert: I've been an avid fan of Eisner's work since discovering The Spirit during the character's revival in the late 1960s and early '70s, so my opinion of Miller's perfidy here is ... ah ... grim.

The Spirit debuted as a newspaper supplement in 1940: a separate, tabloid-size comic book inserted into client papers, as opposed to the more traditional comic strip sections integrated into the newspapers themselves. Eisner played around with style and content for a bit, but WWII service took him away from his creation for a few years.

Eisner returned to his drawing board after the war concluded, and the so-called "post-War Spirits" were sheer gold: a roughly seven-year run of fabulous artwork, ingenious storytelling and vibrantly colorful characters.

Superman and Batman had swept the country by then, so Eisner also played with the very concept of vigilante heroism; The Spirit — actually a former policeman named Denny Colt, believed killed but then mysteriously revived — eschewed any sort of "jumpsuit" and plied his trade in a dark blue business suit, fedora and gloves, all set off by a red tie.

The character's one nod toward anonymity was a domino mask of the same dark blue.

The Spirit has been dubbed the first "middle-class comics hero," and that's a reasonable assessment; Eisner's character routinely dealt with the sort of petty crimes and domestic issues that might have been more at home, years later, in 1960s TV dramas such as East Side/West Side and 87th Precinct.

But yes, the character also dealt with his "Rogue's Gallery" of villains, many sporting colorful, Dick Tracy-style monikers such as Dr. Cobra, Mr. Carrion and The Spirit's arch-nemesis, the never-revealed Octopus, seen only as a silhouette or, more frequently, as a pair of gloved hands reaching for a weapon from one corner of a comic book panel.

The women, though ... ah, they were something else.

Eisner perfected cheesecake long before Hugh Hefner's centerfolds and pin-up artists such as Alberto Vargas became such a sensation. Each was more delectably sexy and dangerous than the last, and all sported names that even Ian Fleming might have balked at: Sand Saref, Plaster of Paris, Silken Floss and most particularly P'Gell, the most fatale of all Eisner femmes.

The latter was introduced in a famous comic section splash page, reclining seductively on a couch as she looked out at readers and intoned — no doubt in husky, Lauren Bacall-esque tones — "I am P'Gell — and this is not a story for little boys."

Yep, and it was delivered in family newspapers every week. Eisner got away with it because the stories were clever, and the sex and violence more implied than shown, and always delivered with a wink and a nod.

As opposed to Miller's approach, which leans more toward showing everything and brutalizing all characters.

Everything about Miller's vision here is wrong.

Although undeniably skilled at film noir-esque comic book stylization — Eisner did amazing things with the way rain drenched characters or lent drama to a scene — The Spirit's creator used all colors; the visual impact of his work resulted from the juxtaposition of blacks, whites and a skilled utilization of the entire rainbow of shades in between.

Miller, in great contrast, has made a movie that could have been released in black-and-white; the occasional splashes of color are superfluous and add nothing to the story.

Eisner opened each story, in those best post-WWII years, with a splash page that cleverly worked the title — "The Spirit" — into buildings, stray bits of newspaper, iron grates, flapping curtains or anything else that helped suggest the story to follow.

Miller simply uses a blood-red wash and font that appears to have been lifted from Sin City. No creativity there.

We immediately meet the Octopus, hammily overplayed far beyond acceptable absurdity by Samuel L. Jackson, delivering the worst acting job of his career (and I'm mindful of earlier bowsers such as Snakes on a Plane), as he engages The Spirit in a bloody, ludicrously protracted fist-fight.

The characters, we soon learn, share a weird quasi-invulnerability that allows them to take mucho abuse and yet rapidly heal.

This isn't quite the way Eisner developed his character, but it's at least an attempt — by Miller, who also scripted this mess — to explain The Spirit's ability to endure beatings, knife wounds and the occasional gunshot while in pursuit of justice.

But here, during this fight, we immediately see that Miller has no ability to actual direct an actor into a performance; Jackson, Gabriel Macht (as The Spirit) and everybody else in this film seem to make up dialogue and facial reactions as they go along. All line readings are wooden and heavily laced with so much pregnant irony that we expect triplets to be delivered in the next scene.

Macht, in particular, is a black hole on the screen: no presence whatsoever.

Miller obviously had the right idea when it came to casting the many voluptuous women in The Spirit's life: The supporting players include Paz Vega, as Plaster of Paris; Jaime King, as Lorelei; Scarlett Johansson, as the Octopus' henchwoman, Silken Floss; Sarah Paulson, as the faithful Ellen Dolan; and Eva Mendes, as Sand Saref.

But only the latter three get any screen time; Vega and King are seen so briefly, and so indistinctly, that they could have been played by department store dummies.

Come to think of it, department store dummies probably would have given better performances.

Sand, it turns out, was young Denny Colt's great first love: As teenagers, the two were inseparable until tragedy drove them apart. This brief flashback is the one thing Miller does right in this movie; it's a touching sequence between young lovers, and the film's only moment of genuine emotion.

The rest is vulgar, garish trash, constantly punctuated by violent sight gags such as the various maiming fates endured by the Octopus' cloned — and identically stupid — henchmen, all played by Louis Lombardi, and all dubbed with a name ending in the letters "OS" (Pathos, Ethos, Logos, Huevos, Rancheros and so forth, all building up to an idiotic sight gag when we meet the final two clones).

Or the chemical disintegration of a fluffy white kitten, which (rather improbably) leaves nothing but two staring eyeballs. Now, that's a yummy scene.

The numbnuts plot involves the Octopus' quest for an immortality formula, which somehow crosses with Sand's attempt to steal a great treasure; both wind up in The Spirit's crosshairs. Not that you'll care for even a second.

At one point, during that first relentlessly violent fight between Jackson's Octopus and Macht's Spirit, the former bashes our hero with a toilet tank, bowl and seat. That pretty much sums up my opinion of this movie, which should have been flushed rather than unleashed on an unsuspecting public that now will have no reason to investigate Eisner's original work.

And that, Mr. Miller, isn't just a shame. It's a crime.

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