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Movie Review: The Spirit

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There's no doubting Frank Miller's storytelling talent. He gave us the astonishing graphic novels 300 and Sin City and decided to “co-direct” the latter in movie form with Robert Rodriguez (although we all know Miller just sat next to Rodriguez and watched him do his thing). But it seems that Miller wanted to try his hand at writing and directing his own film, presumably just as an experiment to see if he had the skill to carry the creative weight almost entirely on his own shoulders.

Well it's disappointing to find out that the experiment has failed; Miller should either take some time to watch and learn from more experienced filmmakers or just stick to creating graphic novels. He just doesn't have the experience or evidently the skill to carry a film's story, to make it work on screen, and he barely even manages to make it watchable. The cheesy dialogue, the outlandish characters, and the over-the-top feel may have worked on the comic book page but it doesn't work on screen. It's not quite the unwatchable, terrible, “all-time worst” movie that a lot of people have called it, but it's not far off.

The film tells the story of rookie cop Denny Colt who comes back to life as the masked hero known as The Spirit (Gabriel Macht), whose mission is to fight against and protect “his city” from the bad forces that plague it, particularly his nemesis The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson).

One wonders whether or not Miller is playing the film for laughs. Its inherent cheesiness is either a result of shrewd wit on Miller's part or just plain inexperience as to what works on screen. The latter is more likely, considering he's only ever had experience on one film set previous to this. Miller probably didn't realise what it truly takes to invest yourself into making a film; even having a small role is hard work, never mind taking on both writing and directing the whole thing. Miller just doesn't have the know-how to make this story work, and the results are at times painful to witness.

The Spirit is an example of stylization given primary importance and overshadowing practically everything else. Miller employs a lazily similar style to Sin City and although it's indeed cool to watch, it's nothing we haven't seen before. It worked well in Sin City simply because we hadn't really seen anything like it before but Miller seems to think that simply anything will work, with flaws forgiven, if that style is applied. But it doesn't; you need more than style to make a movie work, even one such as this. Sin City had great, memorable characters, bloody, “beautiful” violence, over-the-top but not cheesy dialogue and a noir tone that will be looked back on with wide-eyed appreciation in years to come. It's a real shame the same can't be said about The Spirit.

One of the key elements that you need in a film is a good story, something that will carry you along even if other elements fail to work. But The Spirit's story is so muddled, so incomprehensible and, yes, so downright uninteresting that it fails to keep you engaged for practically the entire runtime. There are moments here and there, such as an interrogation scene between The Spirit and Jackson's embarrassingly over-the-top The Octopus, that allow you some sort of morbid laughs but they are too few and far between to even begin to counterbalance what's wrong with the film.

The laughable dialogue will go unrivaled for quite some time. Lines such as, “I'm gonna' kill you all kinds of dead,” “No egg on my face!”, and, “Shut up and bleed,” just don't emit the “cool” vibe that I suspect Miller was going for. Is it a stretch to assume that the cheesiness was indeed on purpose? To most it will be because this, presumably, was a passion project for Miller since he decided to jump in the deep end with both feet by writing, directing, and even acting (in a small role). It just comes back to the ever-present fact that he just doesn't know what makes a film work, and that may change through experience.

The characters of the film could be memorable and iconic if Miller hadn't used them in such a way. Our lead character of The Spirit isn't interesting or likable and we don't ever really root for him (which is essential in a film about a hero), and his obsession with “his city” that “screams for him” comes off as just plain dumb instead of full of wonder and pride as was probably intended. And there's no doubt about the similarities between him and Batman — a masked vigilante going around the city applying his own brand of justice? Too close for comfort. Even the kick-ass force of charismatic nature that is Samuel L. Jackson can't save a villainous character so over-the-top, cheesy, and clichéd that he renders pretty much any scene he is in laughably bad. Every other character is so unmemorable it's hard to recall any of them past their general look. That's never a good thing to say about a film like this; great characters are absolutely essential.

A few words must be dedicated to mentioning the eye-candy that The Spirit has to offer in the form of the exceptionally beautiful Eva Mendes and Scarlett Johansson. It's not hard to see why they were cast in their roles; although important to the story, let's face it — they're only there to look good on screen. And to the film's, or rather the two ladies', credit they accomplish that in spades. Certainly there will be no complaints about that aspect, probably one of the very few elements there won't be complaints about.

Anyone who can get past the horrible dialogue, the embarrassing acting, the cheesy characters, the unbelievable story, and the lacklustre violence (on and on…) and enjoy The Spirit deserves applause and a pat on the back. In other words there is very little reason — so little it's a struggle to come up with any – to spend valuable time and money on The Spirit. For anyone who's a fan of Miller's creativity, you can rest assured that he's still got it in that respect, but just don't hold out any hope for him as a filmmaker. The Spirit is like a tame, uninspired, boring, and badly made version of Sin City. It's strange as one would think the guy who created that story would want to keep his reputation unscathed.

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  • Steve Sparks

    Damn shame, what Miller has done to a character which on the printed page has so much more class and wit! Seems another case of a man badly in need of an editor – much as I dig most of his stuff on the printed page, this fella does get a wee bit self-indulgent at times…and this flick (I shan’t deign to give it the more honourable title of ‘film’ – simply doesn’t have the substance to deserve the sobriquet) positively reeks of self-indulgence!
    Never mind, I shall put Sin City and 300 on the dvd player to remind myself what CAN be done with the genre…and Frankie, watch Night of the Hunter with Robert Mitchum if you want to see what REAL noir and screen menace is about…