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.