January 7, 2009

Movie Review: The Spirit (2008)

thespirit3_largeHere is a movie that I so very badly wanted to love. I love what Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City, not to mention Zack Snyder with 300, I felt fairly certain that Miller could get something into similar territory when he stepped behind the camera for the first time by himself. No, I was not expecting The Spirit to be as good as either of those films, both of which I love, but I was fully expecting this to challenge for a top ten spot on my annual list. Unfortunately, it is not that good; however, it is not that bad either. It is a very strange film that has a lot to like as well as a lot to seriously dislike.

The Spirit is a comic that I have zero experience with. However, with a little research it appears that the character is an important one to comic history. Created by Will Eisner, the character first appeared in 1940 and has been seen in a variety of interpretations ever since. Eisner's character was placed into all manner of stories from crime to noir, from horror to comedy, it does not appear that the Spirit ever met a tale he did not like. He even had a well populated cast of supporting characters, both friend and villain, many of which have survived the translation to the big screen.

thespiritpic5What strikes me about what little I read is that what I saw on the screen does not completely jive with the impression I got of the character. That said, I further get the impression that the film was made by someone with deep passion for the character and its history. However, it also appears that the person behind the film is not all that comfortable with writing for the screen. Frank Miller transition from the drawn page to the shot frame has been nothing if a bit bumpy.

Miller's story has our hero, played by Gabriel Macht, facing off with one his mortal enemy The Octopus, memorably portrayed by the inimitable Samuel L. Jackson. Their fight seems to be one that has been ongoing for some time, their lives intrinsically linked, neither ever able to get the upper hand on the other. When they are not fighting each other to a perpetual draw, Spirit is out fighting whatever crime he can under an agreement with Police Chief Dolan (Dan Lauria). Meanwhile, Octopus is working at finding an ancient artifact that will help him cement his power. Helping him are Silken Floss (Scarlet Johansson), a brilliant woman who keeps his operation going, and a seemingly endless supply of genetically engineered copycat goons (Louis Lombardi).

thespiritpic4Through it all, Spirit's life is complicated by his hot/cold relationship with the Chief's daughter, Ellen (Sarah Paulson), the return of a girl from his past, Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), not to mention the inexplicable way any woman in his vicinity falls for him (not to mention his need to be "polite" to all of them).

Anyway, that is about all the story there is. The way it plays out is more of just a plot than it is a story, as none of the characters have all that strong of a character arc to speak of. Looking for development of characters? Do you want to discover character motivations? Do you want an intriguing, noirish look into a world of comic crime? Well, you'd be better served revisiting Sin City. Not to say that what you need is not to be found here, it just is not all that interesting.

thespiritpic6The dialogue is stilted, acting is over the top, look is often downright cartoonish, not to mention the odd comic relief strewn throughout. Sounds like I didn't like it, doesn't it? It is actually the opposite. All of these odd choices all add up to a cinematic experience that held my attention, partially by how strangely awful it is, and partially how incredibly stylish it is. The combination is pretty interesting.

The Spirit has a look that is a cross between Sin City and 300, it has that distinct "digital backlot" look signifying a ton of green screen work. The images are composed in such a way that they could have only been laid out by someone well versed in a visual medium. The problem is that they all seem to have been set to be stills. Yes, the images are moving, but the intent is for them to be the panels of a comic, unlike what was done in Sin City which used the panels as story boards from which to plan the action. The difference is a fine line, but one that is noticable when watching the action move on the screen.

thespiritpic11Beyond that, that acting and dialogue are highly stylized, again they are designed to emulate the page. The problem is that it does not feel genuine on the screen, not that it is meant to be realistic, but the sense of reality within the filmed universe is not there.

Frank Miller has made some strange decisions, but the finished product is still eminently watchable. It takes the phrase "comic book movie" to a whole new level, skipping the adaptation part going straight to the shooting the panels, bypassing the part where the heart and character on the page is imbued with moving life required when bringing real life people into the equation. At the very least it is a movie that took a chance made by someone who is working outside of the Hollywood machine. Like it or loathe it, it is not business as usual.

Bottomline. Yes, I like this movie. No, it is not a "good" movie by the usual definition, but it is very interesting. It is funny, it is strange, and it is enjoyable. If you want something that is off the beaten path, leave you with more questions than you started with and oddly satisfied at the same time, this may be the movie for you.



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