I have a particularly awesome group of friends whose tastes run the gamut of the pop-culture spectrum. From anime to comics to film to literature, I've been blessed these last few years to know some especially sharp people who I can hang out with, laugh with, and share some good times. One of our rituals is to get together every other week and hang out. There's usually some good food, some pleasant conversation, and then we usually pop in a DVD and kick back to watch some quality entertainment, with perhaps the odd smart remark from the peanut gallery thrown in for seasoning. This week's choice however did not so much raise conversation as it sparked a mass exodus from the entertainment centre and into the living room. In the end, as with the Contest of Immortals there could be only one who would not so much view the film in question as endure it, clinging to sanity with grit teeth and cracking nails as wave after wave of sheer and utter crap washed over the poor, sodden fool.
In other words I saw The Spirit last night. Or rather, I didn't see the Spirit last night. Confused? Stay with me and I'll try to explain.
Before I go any further I want to preface this review with a little caveat; I am legitimately not trying to be a dick here. This is not me as a lone fanboy bitching and moaning about a film. No fools were we either; we knew this film was going to be less than stellar at best. We were at least hoping to be entertained in the way some bad movies can provide. Our hopes were to be dashed quite decisively.
When the film started there were 9 people in the room, then eight. . . seven. . .six. . .until only I remained. So out of about eight to ten people, only one managed to make it from opening credits to closing. Now I know tastes are subjective, but that's at least 4 more than the reccomended peer group of dentists you get in your average gum commercial. Clearly, something was horribly, horribly wrong with the film. Understand that I am not being snide for its own sake, merely that I wish to understand the truth inside the lie and dissect the reasoning behind such an epic dud of a movie.
Let's start with what I actually enjoyed about the film (it'll be brief, trust me):
1) The visual aesthetic: While it owed a bit too much to Sin City, I liked how Central City appeared in the film as a mixture of 1940s/50s architecture and stylings. Mind you, that gets to be a bit jarring as the film goes on(more on that later) but I can't say that the film didn't at least look impressive. Say what you will of Frank Miller and much can be said, but the man does have a good eye for detail and knows how to position what he wants in a shot to make it look as comicbook as possible. I can see what he was shooting for here and I can appreciate it.
2) Gabriel Macht as The Spirit/Denny Colt: He looked the part and it was clear to me that he was giving it his all in the film, doing his best to embody the character as Miller had written him. The problem of course is not so much with Macht's performance as with the material he's given and the Wolverine-style growl he has to grind it out with. The voiceover narration was jarring, the one-liners painfully bad, but he was seriously making an effort, which you have to admit is something. It's clear from other performances that they were just plain bad (Johansen) or had completely lost their effin' minds or couldn't give a damn (Jackson). I mean, he tried to make 'I'm gonna kill you all kinds'a dead' sound cool. He really, truly did. He'll have a breakaway action role, I don't doubt it for a second. Its just that this wasn't it.
That's all that's good in this film. Which brings us, of course, to the wrong in this movie. And where else can we begin but at the very top:
1) Frank Miller: Frank, Frank, Frank. I love ya, ya knucklehead, I truly do, but for the love of all things good and holy just stick to your own comics. You want to do 300 and Sin City? Kool and the Gang man. Have a blast, tear it up, do your thing. But let's you and I be honest with each other as we stand here at the Reichenbach Falls: you can't really write anything else can you? Maybe once upon a time you could vary the tone of your work, make a good superhero story or a tale outside of your normal 'guns/girls/psycho freaks/ultraviolence' schtick. But somewhere between Sin City and Dark Knight Strikes Again a switch was thrown in your head and that capacity just went dark. You write noir stories, you've got a serious man-crush on writers like Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and Mickey Spillane. Particularly Spillane. I've read his writing, and I've read yours, and dear Lord it makes Geoff Johns' man-crush on Hal Jordan look positively subdued(sorry Geoff but c'mon, we all see it). I get it. You like stories about guys. Tough guys. Men of strength who walk alone and wrest the world from the weak and the wretched. You like stories about women. Tough women. No, scratch that. Tough dames Frank. Dames who don't take crap from anyone and use any means at their disposal to get what they want, stepping over everyone in their path and using them and driving them mad with a throaty, earthy sexuality that no man can possess. . .except of course the Tough Guy, who grabs her by the back of the head and kisses her hard, taking her because that's how they should be taken after all. And let's not forget the giggling deviants, the freaks, the scum that need to be taken out of the gene pool, preferrably in a hail of bullets or in manner so graphic and permanent that the next batch to come down the pike should be wettin' themselves if they even think about tossing a crumpled up candybar wrapper on the curb, let alone messing with the Tough Guy's dame, his turf, or his money. It's an old story, a good story, one that I don't mind enjoying from time to time. Just admit unto me that it's the only story you're capable of telling and we can get on with our lives. Honesty Frank. The best damn policy there is.
2) Sin-Spirit: With that information in mind, you can see where I might have a problem with the film. The Spirit of Will Eisner's comics is a heroic everyman, a guy who surivives death by pure chance, and now legally dead he can work outside the system as the police department's secret weapon. That was gotten right. The problem is that while Eisner used the Spirit to tell tales that ran the gamut (from straight up action to film noir to comedy and all points in between) Miller can't do that. He's got the one mode, and as such The Spirit has to bend to meet Miller's style. What results is pretty much what you'd expect from the style I outlined in the above. Everyone is tough. Everyone speaks in a growl or declarative barks, with the odd sultry croon thrown in from the ladies. The action is servicable, but by the time the Octopus (we're getting to it, trust me) whips out twin auto-BFGs and starts firing crazily into the sky at a fleet of police assault helicopters, it's just sensory overload at that point. I mean, when you've seen the hero have a toilet smashed down over his hips and the villain get a kitchen sink to the face, any and all attempts to maintain suspension of disebelief are the fevered dream of a madman. While the Spirit's story structure did lend itself to some dark and noir-themed stories that's not all it could have been, and anything that was done in this film just comes off as a rehash of Sin City, which is far from fair to Eisner's legacy as a creator.
3) Period. Or rather, the lack thereof: The Spirit's heyday was in the 1940s-50s. The film has a very '50s look to it, but the first shot we get is of Denny Colt on a cell phone. We later have a flashback to Denny and the femme fatale Sand Seref in younger days with a '52 Packard driving by on the street and Denny reading EC Comics crime stories. Then when Denny's uncle is murdered a television news team with a very modern shoulder camera get in their faces. The hell? It's either period or it's contemporary, you can't mix and match without confusing the audience and making the work of suspending that monumental disbelief that much more of a herculean task.
4) Louis Lombardi: He plays the various cloned goons created by the Octopus names Porthos, Nervos, Pathos, Adios, and Amigos (And we see those two near the end? Oh verrrrrry clever). Every time I heard his voice or saw that vacant, smiling face of his I wanted to throw something at the screen. That I did not and thus spared my good friend's high definition television is a testament to sheer willpower. What the hell was this about? I freely admit I'm not the most devout reader of Eisner's spirit stories, but I thought the Octopus (he's coming) was a crime boss, not a mad scientist. And Gods, that dialogue, that voice, that grin, it makes my teeth grind just thinking about it.
'We was watchin''
Christ I wish I hadn't. . .
5) The women: Frank Miller cannot write women. He can't. He physically can not do it. I'm sorry. Each woman in this film is either pining after him hopelessly (Paulson, Katic), attracted to him in incredibly kinked-up ways (Vega), or is out to kill him whilst being as goddamned weird as possible (Johansen). They're either golddiggers, weak, crazy, or in it for kicks. They're not actual characters so much as lovely visages and hot bodies the Spirit can work his mojo on.
And last, but far from least, we come to:
6) The Octopus: Some of my friends have opined that they're sick of Sam Jackson in motion pictures. He's become a contemporary of Kevin Bacon in terms of the sheer bulk of motion pictures he's been in or at least affiliated with in the last ten to fifteen years. For the longest time I maintained that while,yes, he may be a little overexposed there was never any such thing as either A) too much of anything good or B) too much Sam Jackson.
I stand corrected.
This performance is so bad, so awful, so utterly wretched that it has to be intentional. It simply has to be. There's no way he intended it to be anything else. He doesn't so much chew the scenery as devour it en masse, not so much speak the dialogue as sneer it. The Octopus of Jackson's portrayal is a complete fruit loop, a mad scientist that would make even Thaddeus Boddog Sivana go 'Seriously, relax already.' He's no spider in the center of a web, no cunning mastermind whose very neame evokes terror in the hearts of the law-abiding. No, here he's a thug, an over-the-top, ham-handed rendition of every hand-wringing, monologing, kitty petting stereotype of a Bond villain you could concieve, and the performance has about as much stability and consistency as Jackson's wardrobe. He'll be a badass Sam Jackson-esque thug one moment, then suddenly launch into a two to three minute monologue about eggs. Seriously. Eggs. Did I miss something from the comics?
The Macguffin of the piece, the Blood of Herakles, makes no effin' sense either. One sip will make the Octopus immortal, although his earlier experiments in life eternal have made himself and the Spirit virtually unkillable. Uh, pardon my miniscule and non-Millerian intellect, but when you're immune to everything from bullets to knives to poison to being hit over the head with a goddamned toilet, isn't that by definition immortality? Let me consult the dictionary:
Immortal - adjective - 1. Not mortal; not liable or subject to death; undying.
Seems to me that both the Octopus and the Spirit are pretty damn non-liable. So what's the point? What the hell was it all for? Bill, help me out:
'It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.'
Brother, you ain't kiddin'.