'The Spirit': Too Silly for Its Own Good

In "The Spirit," Gabriel Macht is the vigilante crime fighter women can't resist.
In "The Spirit," Gabriel Macht is the vigilante crime fighter women can't resist. (Lionsgate/odd Lot Entertainment)
By Carina Chocano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 25, 2008

"Logos," "Ethos" and "Pathos" are the three henchmen of the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) in Frank Miller's "The Spirit." At least they are for a while. The Octopus whips up these identical, dimwitted flunkies in a lab, kills them off at the slightest provocation and replaces them with interchangeable proxy clones with names like "Bozos," "Matzos" and "Fatsos." We know what the henchmen are called because they sport their names on their T-shirts -- and, presumably, because this is how Miller chooses to express his feelings on the role of logic, character and emotion in movies. He's against them, basically.

But then, we knew that already. Miller, who adapted "The Spirit" from the comics of Will Eisner, is the man behind the comics that inspired the hyper-stylized gorefest "Sin City" (2005) and the hawkish oil-and-loincloth epic "300" (2006) -- two films that were not noted for the strength of their characters, dialogue or story.

Miller is also indirectly responsible for the other crime-fighting vigilante movie of the year, Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," an excellent film that probably wouldn't exist if Miller, in the 1980s, hadn't reset the Batman myth to the futuristic dystopia of "The Dark Knight Returns," his artful and ambitious graphic novel. And yet "The Spirit," which Miller wrote and directed, doesn't just play like a cheap "Batman" knockoff, it plays like a cheap "Batman" knockoff that knows it's a cheap "Batman" knockoff and wants to be sure everybody knows it knows. A goofy parody of hard-boiled detective fiction, larded with indigestible globs of expository voiceover and clunky catchphrases, the movie preemptively mocks itself at every turn, as if trying to beat the rest of us to the punch.

This should prove dispiriting to fans of Eisner's work, if any are to be found among the film's intended audience. Asked nearly 70 years ago to create a costumed superhero for a special newspaper section, Eisner came up with a former detective in an eye mask, gloves, a fedora and a bright blue suit -- a guy distinctly lacking in superpowers unless you counted his luck with women and his ability to take a beating. In the comic, Denny Colt becomes the Spirit after he's placed in a state of suspended animation by a villain and, upon awakening, decides to continue to let people think he's dead in order to secretly help the police.

In the movie, Colt (Gabriel Macht) is a murdered cop "mysteriously reborn" as a vigilante crime fighter with supernatural healing powers, which turn out to come in handy after his ultraviolent run-ins with the Octopus.

The story begins as the Spirit is summoned to the mudflats near the Center City waterfront, where some kind of shady deal involving two criminal masterminds and a pair of sunken treasures has just gone down. If that sounds clear, it's because production notes help. What we actually see is much harder to follow: The Spirit, waxing lyrical about his home town ("My city needs me . . . My city screams," etc.), leaves his lair to arrive at the place where moments earlier a beautiful woman (Eva Mendes) has shot a policeman point-blank. As he falls, the cop tears a locket from a chain around the woman's neck, which is how the Spirit discovers that his old flame -- international jewel thief Sand Saref (Mendes) -- is back in town. He also quickly realizes that the real cop shooter is the Octopus, who had come to the mudflats in search of the treasure with which Sand has mistakenly absconded. Sand was after the magical armor of the Argonauts, the Octopus was after a vase containing the blood of Heracles, which will give him godlike powers. (The treasures were packed in identical wooden crates.)

The Octopus, his henchmen and his sidekick/Girl Friday Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) try to track down Sand Seraf, while the Spirit and enthusiastic rookie girl-cop Morgenstern (Stana Katic) try to get to her first. Morgenstern, naturally, is distracted by the Spirit's charms, as are Dolan's pretty surgeon daughter Ellen (Sarah Paulson), who dutifully patches him up every night, and Lorelei (Jaime King), the crystal-encrusted angel of death who keeps trying to lure him back to the beyond.

The point? No woman can resist the Spirit.

Despite their penchant for beating each other to a pulp whenever they meet, the hero and villain of the story barely seem antithetical. Jackson's Octopus is an over-the-top caricature, a vociferous cipher with a big gun collection. Macht's Spirit is cute, goofy and utterly vapid. Never mind that there isn't a fully formed character between them. With their private obsessions -- the Spirit with his women and his screaming city, the Octopus with his unexplained obsession with eggs and his quest for immortality -- it's a wonder they even bother to keep the rivalry going at all.

The Spirit of the comic book was sometimes a passive character, a wry observer of events. But in the movie he comes across as inert and incidental. It doesn't help that the action is shot in front of a green screen onto which Miller projects silhouetted streetscapes, moody slatted blinds and theatrical drapes. Or that, posed awkwardly in cramped shots meant to evoke comic book frames, the actors are asked to disgorge torrents of exposition at a time. In fact, the characters spend so much time explaining things it leaves hardly any time to show them. At times, the movie resembles an incredibly expensive puppet show.

The intention is clear, but the result is dreadful. Good comic books suggest action through abstraction, but "The Spirit" plays like an overproduced diorama. Watching it is like watching three dimensions trying to pass themselves off as two.

The Spirit (103 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of stylized violence and action, sexual content and brief nudity.

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