Reel Opinions

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Spirit

I cannot in any good consciousness recommend The Spirit. Common sense prevents me. However, in all fairness, I will say this - The Spirit is the most entertainingly awful movie I've seen in a long time. It's certainly never dull, as we try to figure out just what writer-director Frank Miller (Sin City) is going to throw up on the screen next. The movie is an uncomfortable blend of CG technology (Only the actors and some props are real. The sets and everything else was digitally added later on), B-movie detective film noir, soft-core eroticism, and campy humor that would be right at home in the old Batman TV show with Adam West. In case you're wondering, these elements do not go well together.

Who is The Spirit? I'm still trying to figure that out myself. We know that he's a cop who died in the line of duty, and somehow has come back to life as a nearly immortal crime fighter. He doesn't know how exactly, but he does eventually find out in a scene that involves Samuel L. Jackson dressed in a Nazi outfit and melting a cat so that only a puddle and a pair of cartoon eyeballs remain when he is finished with the feline. The Spirit is played by Gabriel Macht, and he dresses like the Lone Ranger with a black leather fetish. He stalks the streets, searching out evil-doers. Many of those evil-doers come from his arch nemesis, a crime lord who calls himself The Octopus. That's Jackson's character. He has an army of cloned goons who are not very bright, and act like the kind of comic relief we used to see in TV cartoons like the Super Friends. The plot involves The Octopus seeking some kind of fabled blood of ancient gods that could make him immortal. He's already pretty much immortal, just like The Spirit himself, but he wants to be completely immortal. Did he come back from the dead too? The details are a bit murky, but I say yes.

The Spirit is an odd character. He likes to deliver long monologues and provide his own narration when no one around is listening to him. Sometimes there's an alley cat who he talks to, as if the cat could somehow understand him. When he's not talking to himself, there's plenty of women for him to seduce and be seduced by. There's a girl from his past named Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), who has returned to the city under mysterious circumstances. In one of the film's few character-building moments, we see a flashback when The Spirit and Sand Saref were friends as teens. She walked away when her father died, and now she's back in town, searching for the same ancient blood The Octopus is. Sand Saref is not a very interesting character, but I will give her this - You've gotta be pretty confident in yourself to deliver dramatic dialogue while taking a Xerox copy picture of your own butt. Other women who fade in and out of the film's muddled plot include Spirit's somewhat girlfriend, Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson) and The Octopus' main henchman, Silken Floss (Scarlet Johannson), who despite her great name doesn't get to do a whole lot.

I stopped trying to make sense of the movie about 20 minutes in. I don't think it took that long for Miller and his crew. The Spirit holds so much half-baked dialogue and wooden performances that it had to be some kind of inside joke on the set. It frequently switches tones, sometimes acting deadly serious, and sometimes being so wacky that The Spirit breaks the fourth wall, and starts delivering one liners directly to the audience like in an old Looney Tunes short. The only people in my audience who seemed to be enjoying the movie were those who were laughing at it (at it, not with it, mind you). A couple behind me walked out about the point Jackson's character showed up in Nazi garb to torture the Spirit, and never returned. That means they missed the scene where the Octopus explains how he got his name (he has eight of everything), but stuck around long enough to see the scene where the Spirit has to drop his pants in front of a crowd of onlookers and use his belt to swing across a building. This is the kind of movie actors fire their agents over.

In case you didn't know, Frank Miller is mainly known for his work in the comics field. So, it's only natural that the movie has a very comic book look to it. The Spirit's trademark red tie glows like neon against his black silhouette, the city he inhabits is a dark and cartoonish imitation of film noir, and the actors (especially Samuel L. Jackson) overact as if they wish the entire movie itself was animated. At least then they wouldn't have to show their faces. I guess there is something to be admired about the technical wizardry on display, but it's hard to pay attention to it when the awfulness of the dialogue and the plotting keeps on distracting you. How can we ignore it when lines like, "This is big - Octopus big!" are delivered with such breathless enthusiasm? Another distraction is the music score by the usually reliable David Newman, who here seems to have taken Danny Elfman's score to 1989's Batman, and robbed it of all personality.

There may come a time when The Spirit is viewed as some sort of bizarre, midnight cult classic. I can picture people getting together to verbally poke fun at the film, or maybe create a drinking game around it. (Take a shot every time The Spirit starts into one of his long-winded monologues. You'll be drunk by the 15 minute mark.) But there will never be a time that this is viewed as anything more than a curiosity or a cinematic train wreck. In a year that's given us comic book movies like Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Hellboy II, and The Incredible Hulk, did it really have to end this way?

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