Director doesn't stay true to spirit of comic strip character
December 25, 2008 10:00 AM
Eva Mendes in "The Spirit."
By Tony Norman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
While watching "The Spirit," Frank Miller's adaptation of Will Eisner's classic comic strip character, it is hard not to be overcome by feelings of sadness and loss. Fans of the comic series -- among which I count myself -- have dreaded the day the Spirit would be subjected to the full Hollywood treatment. Alas, that day has arrived. Unfortunately, "The Spirit" is about as bad as could be imagined by the most pessimistic of fanboys.
It isn't a surprise to longtime admirers of the strip that despite the superficial resemblance between Gabriel Macht as the title character and the masked crusader who debuted in newspaper inserts in 1940, the project was doomed without a director who understood and valued Eisner's vision.
On his first outing as a solo director, Frank Miller demonstrates that he is, indeed, familiar with the late Will Eisner's work. What's also clear is that he isn't the least bit interested in staying true to the spirit of the series. That's too bad. Even at his dullest, Eisner wrote stories that resonated more with the rhythms and gritty absurdities of urban life than Miller's postmodern take on his seminal character.
An early scene opens with a shot of a toad croaking as snow falls on Central City. It's hard to tell whether Miller is merely careless about the cycles of nature or signaling his general contempt for narrative coherence. By the time the Spirit confronts his deadly nemesis the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) in the mudflats on the outskirts of the city, every hope that Miller could pull off this audacious project is dashed.
"Come on, toilets are always funny," the Octopus says after dropping a toilet bowl on the Spirit's head. If Mr. Miller's intent was to pull the viewer out of the flow of the film, he succeeds magnificently.
The Spirit and the Octopus roll around in the muddy, junk-strewn water, clobbering each other with heavy objects. Because we learn in the first 20 minutes that the antagonists can't be hurt no matter what they do to each other, the film descends into anticlimax and stays there.
The movie's bevy of femme fatales and ingenues doesn't advance the plot much more than the two leads. Eva Mendes tries to be alluring as the jewel thief Sand Saref, a woman who shares a tragic history with the Spirit's alter ego, Denny Colt. She becomes an object of the Octopus' wrath after stealing "the blood of Heracles," an elixir that could make its possessor a god. The Spirit is torn between memories of his teenage love for Sand and his obligation to bring her to justice.
Scarlett Johansson is the Octopus' beautiful assistant Silken Floss. Her role, as best can be determined, is to stand around in geisha and Nazi officer uniforms looking sexy. Sarah Paulson is Ellen Dolan, the doctor who mends the Spirit's battered body but is forced to share his heart with every other woman he meets. Jaime King is Lorelei, the frustrated Angel of Death. Stana Katic is rookie Officer Morgenstern and Paz Vega is Plaster of Paris, two beauties on opposite sides of the law.
None of the characters makes much of an impression in a movie that is 95 percent computer-generated. It also doesn't help that everyone -- except Sam Jackson -- engages in hokey noir-inspired speech straight out of 1940s melodrama despite the fact that the action takes place today.
Miller brings an attitude to "The Spirit" that served him better when he co-directed "Sin City," a film based on a graphic novel series he created. "The Spirit" unspools more like a sequel to "Sin City" than a logical continuation of Eisner's work.
Comic book fans will be amused by Miller's shameless reference to his own work. There are echoes of his classic run on "Daredevil," especially the doomed romance between that blind superhero and the ninja assassin Electra. Because "The Spirit" isn't very entertaining, fans can keep their minds busy by cataloguing all of Miller's inside jokes. You get 10 points if you can spot the tribute to Spider-man's legendary co-creator. No, Stan Lee doesn't do a cameo.
Why is "The Spirit" so disappointing? In comics, Miller pursued a vision of urban life that was consumed with the surface of things, including light and shadows. Story, though important, was secondary to the psychological impact of each panel's composition and how it came together on the page.
Eisner was a classicist who is credited with advancing the integrity of storytelling in comics. He took pains to maintain the uninterrupted sweep of his narratives without relying on visual gimmicks to advance the story.
These contrasting sensibilities are at war in "The Spirit." Unfortunately, Miller wins the argument at the expense of a potentially great franchise.