Movies: The Spirit

…written and directed by Frank Miller; starring Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, and Eva Mendes.

The Spirit is a lot like that girl you never should’ve dated but did anyway: the one that was a little too crazy, a little too vapid, but too damned good to look at it to leave alone.  The movie kind of bounces around all over within the confines of an overly familiar boilerplate superhero script.  Here’s The Spirit (not Will Eisner’s version, let’s be clear), an amalgamation of Wolverine, Dick Tracy, and Batman playing the boyscout/rake in the dark bleak city.  Here are vintage 40s and 50s autos along with cellphones and super guns.  There’s crazy-ass Sam Jackson playing the villainous Octopus with over-the-type Jim Carrey-ish glee.  And there goes Eva Mendes as Sand Seraf, the Spirit’s old flame, in yet another ridiculously hot ensemble.  Story?  You want to complain about story?!?

It took me all of 10 minutes to figure that this film is mostly about cheap thrills and laughs and stunning visuals.  Frank Miller knows a thing or two about noir and anti-heroes, and he does an admirable job of playing off the familiar tropes to great effect.  All the bleak lighting, weather, shadows, etc. work because there’s a triple exclamation action sequence around the corner.  The Spirit’s straight-ahead pursuit of the bad guys, the ridiculously long bits of expository dialogue and internal monologue set up some pretty clever humor.  And it’s mostly at the expense of some genres that take themselves a little too seriously.

The problem is, as funny as those scenes are, this isn’t really a comedy.  Miller is also trying to do homage to Will Eisner’s version of The Spirit while staking his own auteurish claim in the cinema.  He’s trying to make a commercially viable (and marketable) movie.  And this leads to several awkward sequences and cliched moments that don’t seem to fit.  When combined with the aforementioned boilerplate story, and an appreciable lack of characterization, this has some of the critics complaining.

I’m no Spirit comic book purist:  I’ve only read a small portion of the strips — mostly in the context of trying to learn some of Eisner’s techniques — but what I do recall and admire is they way those old comic strips told complete self-contained stories in what amounted to a large print page.  The strips were concise and articulate.  They were all about the craft of storytelling.  Perhaps if Frank Miller had taken that approach to this film adaptation it would’ve been more satisfying.  Similar to the vignettes in the Sin City movie, only with more of them…  and shorter…  But a movie written in short interconnected sequences has art film written all over it, and this was always about bringing a big budget product to the masses.

Instead we have a flawed but entertaining piece of pop culture (with plenty of internal references for the true geek).  A popcorn flick with lots of style.  A noir/superhero send-up of the first order.  If that sound like your bag, or you just want to check out Eva in full costume, go see The Spirit.


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