Thursday 11 June 2009

The Spirit (2008)

Thursday 11 June 2009
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He may be a God to comic-book geeks, but Frank Miller has a dreadful track record when it comes to filmmaking. He's the screenwriter responsible for those woeful RoboCop sequels, lest we forget. Off the back of co-directing Sin City with Robert Rodriguez (although I'm convinced he was on-set just nodding approval as the source material's creator), Miller nevertheless picked up enough technical expertise to have a stab at a solo project. Tellingly, he thought better of ruining his own work, so instead plundered Will Eisner's The Spirit...

Eschewing an origin story (because that would ruin one of the script's few turning-points), The Spirit finds eponymous superhero Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht) as the immortal, invulnerable protector of Central City. He's a sharp-suited The Crow type, living in the era of The Shadow, walking around the digital backdrops of Sin City, accompanied by music evoking Danny Elfman's Batman score. The Spirit's nemesis is equally invincible criminal mastermind The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), who is trying to locate a vase containing the blood of Hercules to become omnipotent, with the help of seven cloned dullards (24's Louis Lombardi) and femme fatale Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson). Thrown into the mix is Denny's childhood sweetheart Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), a girl he lost touch with, who is also after the mythical blood for reasons my brain has wisely decided to forget.

Where shall I make the first incision? The Spirit is digital dirge. You can't criticize the seemingly-derivative premise too much, because Eisner's ideas predate a lot of the movies and comics that ripped it off, but Miller fails to give anything much weight, everything he does reminds you of better movies, and when all else fails he indulges a surreal sense of witless humour. Take for example the nonsensical scenes of The Octopus mulling over his plans while dressed as a Japanese warrior, or interrogating his arch-enemy while dressed as a Nazi. Is this just bizarre and intentionally silly fun? No, it's the pointless drivel of a script that knows it can't engage audiences with plot or character, so resorts to coughing up crazy visuals.

Macht tries his best as the redivivus cop, but ultimately can't do much beyond look the part; Jackson opts to embrace the insanity and goes OTT to zero comic effect; and the assortment of hot young actresses assembled (likely drawn to the project as fans of the vastly-superior Sin City) just fill out period costumes and wear fancy-dress. It's particularly depressing that Johansson continues to pick such duff projects post-Lost In Translation (or did she only do this merely to escape Woody Allen for a few weeks?), Mendes gets to photocopy her derriere and tempt a freeze-frame when she drops a towel for the hero, Sarah Paulson is spectacularly wasted as the supposed Lois Lane of the story (a doctor who tends Denny's wounds and secretly fancies him), while Dan Lauria (a.k.a "the dad from The Wonder Years") plays a gruff Commissioner Gordon-type called Commissioner Dolan.

With a plot that barely justifies half an hour, relationships that carry no credibility, and action sequences that opt for slapstick and cartoon-y violence (like the infamous scene where Macht lands countless blows to Jackson before getting a toilet slammed onto his head), The Spirit is just a numb, dumb mess. A misfiring attempt to blend film noir with pratfalls, wrapped in the clothing of an adolescent male fantasy. It's the product of an immature writer-director with no exciting ideas beyond fooling around with an esoteric comic strip, using a filming technique he can't wield to any effect. And what is it with these digital worlds and their love of wispy snow flakes, also ubiquitous in Sin City and Max Payne? Is it to make essentially flat-looking CGI backdrops feel alive?

The Spirit isn't even a style-over-substance success, as there's nothing that struck me as being particularly stylish and cool about it. By the time our hero was dangling from the side of a building with his trousers round his ankles, as our villain contemplated a human foot with a miniature head attached... my spirit had been well and truly broken.

written & directed by: Frank Miller (based on the comic-book by Will Eisner) starring: Gabriel Macht (Denny Colt), Samuel L. Jackson (The Octopus), Scarlett Johansson (Silken Floss), Eva Mendes (Sand Saref), Sarah Paulson (Ellen Dolan), Dan Lauria (Commissioner Eustace Dolan), Stana Katis (Morgenstern), Louis Lombardi (Phobos, Logos, Pathos, Ethos, Bulbos, Huevos, Mangos), Jaime King (Lorelai), Paz Vega (Plaster Of Paris), Seychelle Gabriel (Young Sand Saref) & Johnny Simmons (Young Denny Colt) LionsGate Entertainment/OddLot Entertainment - 102 mins. - $53 million (budget)