(2009) Superhero Action/Comedy (Lionsgate) Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Scarlett Johansson, Dan Lauria, Paz Vega, Jaimie King, Louis Lombardi, Stana Katic. Directed by Frank Miller
Frank Miller is one of the most honored and respected graphic novelists in the business. His The Dark Knight Returns is one of the most influential graphic novels in history, bringing on the current wave of dark-themed and gritty realism comics that seem to dominate these days.
One of his major influences is Will Eisner; hell, nearly everyone writing and drawing comics today can say that. The major industry awards are named after the guy; that should tell you something. One of Eisner’s most famous creations is The Spirit.
Denny Colt (Macht) is a police officer who was killed in the line of duty, but has been reborn as The Spirit (Macht), a masked crime fighter known for his red tie and his ability to fight without being killed. He lives in Central City, a dingy, dirty, corrupt place of shadows and alleys, swamps and skyscrapers. He protects the city with his blood and what’s left of his soul. What is there to protect it from? In a word, the Octopus (Jackson), a mad scientist who has the same abilities The Spirit has but who craves something more; immortality.
To that end, he is concocting a formula that utilizes some fairly uncommon ingredients, one of which is the Blood of Heracles…Hercules, to you and me. He and his artificially created (and uncommonly stupid) henchmen Logos, Pathos and Ethos (Lombardi all) and his incredibly smart and sexy right hand Silken Floss (Johansson) have torn up the city for the ingredients.
However, he’s not the only one looking for immortality. International jewel thief Sand Saref (Mendes), the former love of the late Denny Colt, is also in town looking for the stuff and all hell is breaking loose. The Spirit has his hands full trying to keep the Octopus from achieving his end, while trying to protect his heart from being broken again by Serif.
Those who might remember Miller’s Sin City (which he co-directed with Robert Rodriguez) will know the style he employed here, a very noir-ish tone in both look and feel, with black and white and sepia that contrasts wildly with splashes of color; red tie, red lips, red blood. Miller’s graphic novels have been notable for their dark tones and gritty film noir-like style.
But this isn’t pure noir; there’s an element of camp to it that is reminiscent of the 1960s Batman, from the henchmen with their names on their shirts to the stylized fighting style. There are also the femme fatales, including the aforementioned Serif and Floss, as well as the assassin Plaster of Paris (Vega). There’s also the doctor, Ellen Dolan (Paulson) who is The Spirit’s love interest and of all the women here has the most personality.
But it is the Macht-Jackson show. They are the center of the story; Macht makes for a fine hero while Jackson chews on the scenery like George Lopez at an all-you-can-eat taqueria. Jackson seems to be having a ton of fun in a larger-than-life role. He pulls out all the stops, but never lets his performance overwhelm the part.
There is a questionable scene in which Jackson and Johansson are outfitted as Nazis; I’m not exactly sure why Miller went there, other than to add a Raiders of the Lost Ark-ish element to the movie, but it doesn’t work. Neither does Mendes as Saref. The role is meant to be sympathetic in the end, but quite frankly Mendes seems to be more successful when she is less soft. Certainly she’s beautiful and sexy, but in the end I felt she wasn’t quite right for the role.
The movie got savaged by critics upon release, while audiences were far more indifferent. Despite a ton of pre-release hype and high expectations given the director and the material, poor word-of-mouth doomed the movie. That is quite a shame, because in many ways the movie is much better than you might have heard it was, but you do have to be in the right frame of mind to really appreciate it. If you are looking for something on the campy side and not so much on the dark gritty side, you might find The Spirit to be some mighty fine entertainment. However, you should be warned that these elements might be a little bit at odds with most folks’ perception of Miller, whose works up to now haven’t had the kind of lighter side depicted here.
WHY RENT THIS: Very stylized and campy, generally in a good way. Macht is perfectly cast as the Spirit and Jackson delivers an over-the-top performance as the villain.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Mendes is terribly miscast and some of the campiness might be grating for those looking for a straight-up superhero movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of stylized violence, a bit of sexuality (including some brief nudity) and while it’s pretty much okay for most teens, I’d think twice before letting the young kids see this.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When it came time to shoot Paz Vega’s scene, her costume so distracted Miller that he yelled “Cut” instead of “Action!”
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a feature on the creator of the original comic, Will Eisner and his effect on the industry in general.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39M on an unreported production budget; in all likelihood the movie broke even at best but most likely not.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: Waiting for “Superman”