Gabriel Macht as The Spirit
Samuel L. Jackson as The Octopus
Eva Mendes as Sand Saref
Scarlett Johansson as Silken Floss
Sarah Paulson as Ellen Dolan
Dan Lauria as Commissioner Dolan
Stana Katic as Morgenstern
Paz Vega as Plaster of Paris
Louis Lombardi as Pathos/Logos/Ethos, et al.
Eric Balfour as Mahmoud
Jaime King as Lorelei
Directed by Frank Miller
A valiant attempt to bring Will Eisner’s character to the screen is marred by hammy overacting and horrendous writing by a filmmaker who clearly doesn’t share Eisner’s charming sense of humor.
Police officer Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht) was shot and killed in the line of duty but he’s returned as The Spirit, Central City’s defender of justice, taking on the evil Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) and his sidekick Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson). Things get more difficult when his childhood sweetheart Silken Floss (Eva Mendes) returns to Central City, now a jewel thief trying to get the same mysterious vase that the Octopus is after.
The difficulty in bringing comic book material to the big screen in an effective way is compounded when you have one comic creator trying to reinvision the work of another. That’s very much the case with “The Spirit,” an amalgam of classic Will Eisner with Frank Miller’s unique noir-inspired visuals, which never quite delivers on the goods.
The first twenty minutes sets the tone, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the viewer, including a ridiculous mud fight between The Spirit and Jackson’s The Octopus; you know right away you’re in for a long movie. Sadly, that’s because the writing comes from the mind of the same Miller who wrote the incomprehensible “All-Star Batman and Robin,” most of it so bad that even a stronger group of actors probably couldn’t have delivered it effectively.
It takes some time to adjust to Gabriel Macht as the main character, because he plays The Spirit far too dark and serious with the type of first-person narrative that would fit better in Sin City than Central City. Eva Mendez makes for a sexy Sand Serif with the type of ’50s sex appeal that works beautifully in this cross between Eisner and Miller. That’s not to say Mendez gives a particularly strong performance, but she also has some absolutely horrendous lines that she has to try and deliver with a straight face. Even so, her scenes with Macht are probably the closest the film comes to straight Eisner, as are the scenes with Dan Lauria as Commissioner Dolan and Sarah Paulson as his daughter Ellen, both of whom do a much better job with their characters than anyone else.
In trying to create the craziest of characters ala Eisner’s best, Miller seems to be throwing whatever he can against the wall to see what sticks, but that doesn’t justify letting Samuel L. Jackson unleash one of the most ridiculous scenery-chewing performances of his career. Wearing all sorts of outlandish costumes is bad enough but he spends the entire movie ranting ridiculous lines about how he hates eggs and the like. It’s impossible to take his character seriously as a baddie as Scarlet Johansson vainly tries to keep pace as his sidekick Silken Floss, systematically killing off their disposable cloned henchmen, seemingly influenced by the Beagle Boys. Their scenes together are supposed to bring Eisner’s humor to the mix but they are almost unwatchable because they’re so bad. The same can be said for some of the other auxiliary characters like Stana Katic’s rookie cop whose exaggerated accent quickly gets annoying, and Paz Vega as the sword-wielding femme fatale Plaster of Paris in one of the film’s many “what the f*ck were they thinking” moments? Jaime King appears from time to time as “angel of death” Lorelei in a couple of showy CG dream sequences that don’t fit in with the rest of the movie.
The movie does look really cool thanks to the amazing CG visuals that blend the best of Eisner, Miller’s “Sin City” and apparently Tex Avery though Miller’s visual influences go far beyond the comic page, paying tribute to Tarantino and traditional crime noir films. Even so, it’s very hard to adjust to the film’s frenetic pace and mixed references, even once it settles down into a slower and more straight-forward crime thriller.
The last half hour of the movie seems to get better–or maybe we’ve just come to accept that it is what it is by then–as we learn the connection between the Octopus and the Spirit–a bit of artistic license used to tie the two characters together. The action and the visuals in the final battle sequence between the two indestructible arch-nemeses makes up for some of the weaker acting, and it certainly uses stylish violence in a far more entertaining way than recent dogs like “Punisher: War Zone” and “Max Payne.”
The Bottom Line:
Those unfamiliar with the source material might not understand or appreciate the bits of this movie derived straight from Eisner, but there’s little way around the fact that the movie is an absolute with dialogue and performances so bad it’s hard to appreciate Miller’s inventive visuals. Probably the best comparison is the Wachowskis’ “Speed Racer,” a similarly stylish, visually-driven movie that was barely watchable when going into it unprepared for such an experience. If you can get through the first twenty minutes, you might be okay, but good luck getting through the Jackson-Johansson scenes.