The Spirit is the reason why I hate hyping myself up for movies. This one is a combination I'd never turn down – the marriage of a retro action film with comic book artist Frank Miller's distinctive visual style. Having grown up on the likes of Dick Tracy and The Shadow, it's only natural that I looked forward to The Spirit with a smidgen of fevered anticipation. Little did I know what a slipshod mess awaited me at the local multiplex. It's not as grand a comics-to-film travesty as the infamous Batman & Robin, but viewers will have no problem finding something to laugh about with 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 crime fighters. The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) is a former cop who was shot dead 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 plagues its streets. Eventually, he has a big 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 that contains the blood of Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules), which the already indestructible baddie believes will turn him into a god among men. A slip-up lands the crate in the hands of Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), a master jewel thief and former childhood flame of The Spirit's. 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 the man's indecisiveness downright crippling what could have been a truly jaw-dropping experience.
First things first, Miller has viewers covered on a visual front. To put it simply, The Spirit looks fantastic, even if there are a couple of disappointing moments where it goes out of its way to imitate Sin City's signature style. Miller does a terrific job of turning Central City into a noirish wonderland, a sprawling metropolis whose every nook and cranny is used by The Spirit in his war on crime.
What Miller doesn't do, ironically, is find the right spirit to accompany the eye candy. The Spirit is stuck in comic book purgatory, a state of limbo in which it exists neither as a parody nor as a straightforward adaptation. Instead, it's some bizarre hybrid of the two that is never fully developed and leads to a few too many awkward scenes. Thus, you get some exaggerated characters like Dan Lauria's grizzled police commissioner who feel right at home in the picture, 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 that Miller apparently refused to give a once-over. 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 is 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 that I hope future performers are wise enough to avoid.
The Spirit reminded me a lot of Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia. Both features are visually sumptuous, but when it comes down to story and script, hilarious results follow. Miller's film has an inherent cheesiness that may make it a future cult classic, but it's not likely to win any fans nowadays. The Spirit is a nice film to look at, but you wouldn't want to watch it.