Miller’s recent output of comics has been frustrating to say the least. The particular idiosyncrasies that made his particular voice unique have expanded (and expanded and expanded) recently, swallowing his natural talent in an avalanche of solipsistic posturing. His characterization has tended to wallow in shallow displays of bravado while his dialogue circles itself while giving out very little information. It’s supposed to be stylistic, but it comes across as an inane treading of water. In fact, inane is a good word to describe most of Miller’s recent output. It’s been a head-scratching affair, as Miller’s work has been so off target, more than one observer has suggested it’s meant as parody. Surely no one could accept it at face value as something of quality. “The Spirit” is, unfortunately, no different.
Created by comics legend Will Eisner in 1940, “The Spirit” told the adventures of police officer Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht) who–presumed dead after a chemical bath leaves him in temporary suspended animation–continues battling crime as the masked avenger called The Spirit. As origins go its pretty flimsy, but Eisner wasn’t really concerned with that. The character himself was just a cipher for various formal experiments. He’s a masked crime fighter because that’s what was popular at the time. Miller has decided to take that ball and run with it, which is fair enough. Most adaptations do better when they aren’t slavish copies of the original and the original character was too flat to exist as he was. Almost anything would do and anything is what we get; anything and everything including the actual kitchen sink.
It seems The Spirit’s arch nemesis The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) has been searching for years for the means to make himself immortal. His first steps in that direction were a formula that makes its recipient unkillable, no matter how much physical damage they sustain, and his first test subject was the recently killed in the line of duty Officer Denny Colt. Now the two men wage a never-ending battle across Central City, neither able to permanently stop the other no matter the literally Bugs Bunny levels of violence they engage in.
So far so silly, but that’s the tone he’s chosen, so okay. Some of the scenes are so over-the-top ridiculous that they actually are funny, and I’m pretty sure they’re meant to be. Though in a movie that includes a scene with Jackson and beautiful assistant Scarlett Johansson done up in full Nazi regalia, Paz Vega as a French belly-dancing assassin and a melting kitten, phrases like over-the-top seem to lose all meaning.
On top of that, however, he has stacked his continuing obsession with Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane and similar hard-boiled crime writers. “The Spirit” is layered top to bottom with the mannerisms of the genre, from The Spirit’s internal (and often external) monologue to the increasing coterie of femme fatale’s he finds himself surrounded by. To be fair, this is probably closer to what Lionsgate had in mind from the outset. But to say it clashes horribly with the lunatic side of the film would be a massive understatement. The “Sin City” aesthetic is in full force. If anything, “The Spirit” is even richer looking; not the break that film was but certainly a refinement. Not that all the polish in the world would help.
One thing Miller can rely on here that he can’t elsewhere are his actors. A good actor can impart even the worst dialogue with layers of meaning and humanism. Despite, or maybe because of, how over the top his role is, Jackson is largely able to make his moments funny no matter how ridiculous they get. He certainly seems to be enjoying himself, and he has some good on screen chemistry with Macht. Their few moments of interaction–as they comment on how futile their fight is–are some of the few enjoyable ones in the film. But, for every moment of vague entertainment, there’s another of eye rolling stupidity and two of out and out boredom. Most of those revolve around Eva Mendes who is absolutely awful as Sand Serif, an old flame from The Spirit’s past who has the MacGuffin everyone’s after. She speaks her dialogue as if she’s reading it off the page, which just further highlights the deficiencies in her and it. Every so often a joke works, but just when you think maybe you’ve been too hard on Miller out pops an excruciatingly amateurish bit of exposition. “The Spirit” is littered with them, from clumsy flash backs to the worst of all exposition sins: characters telling each other things they already know in order to inform the audience. In fact, most of the characters tend to talk at rather than to each other. It’s as if dialogue were an annoyance, something to while away the minutes. It doesn’t help that Miller loves repetition as a stylistic device but he hammers it home so much it quickly becomes irritating. Dan Lauria’s Commissioner Dolan and his assistant Morgenstern (Stana Katic) are the worst offenders.
Morgenstern is one of Miller’s personal additions to the world of The Spirit and, like a lot of the other characters, she’s a cartoon. There’s not a moment she’s on screen that you won’t laugh, but not for the reasons you’re supposed to. Yes, it’s supposed to be silly, but as to how that plays Miller either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care. And she’s not the only woman let down that way. All the female characters are treated fairly shabbily (though a lot of the misogyny from his other work is missing). They’re all more or less sex objects–it’s a running gag that all women instantly fall for The Spirit and he for them–fetishized with slow motion, bizarre outfits and violence. The only one with any sort of depth is Sand Serif, but Mendes is so bad it doesn’t matter.
“The Spirit” feels like an extended trip through Frank Miller’s personal fantasyland, and it’s easy to guess how interesting a film made for an audience of one is going to be to anyone else. Maybe he thinks there are enough people out there who share his tastes that this could actually work. Maybe he’s right. But for the rest of us it’s at best an exercise in bemusement, trying to figure out what we just saw. Despite everything I’ve written, the fact is no words can really do “The Spirit” justice. And not in a good way.