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Dustin's Review

The Spirit  (2008)
 Star
Directed by Frank Miller.
Cast: Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Paz Vega, Sarah Paulson, Dan Lauria, Louis Lombardi, Eric Balfour, Jaime King, Johnny Simmons, Seychelle Gabriel.
2008 – 103 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, some sexual content, and brief nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 19, 2008.
When Frank Miller made his directorial debut with 2005's "Sin City," he left it to more seasoned co-helmer Robert Rodriguez to do the heavy lifting. Rodriguez sits out on "The Spirit," a big-screen adaptation of the 1940s Will Eisner comic, and it shows. Left to his own devices, Miller hasn't a clue what he's doing. Shot entirely in front of a greenscreen with live-action actors, the backgrounds digitally added during post-production, "The Spirit" may be trying for the look of "Sin City" (black and white solids separated by the occasional bold primary color), but it is without that picture's skill, scope and grandeur. Most of the frames look curiously empty and downright clunky, as if the details weren't filled in before the print was locked. Call this the direct-to-video "Sin City" wannabe that just so happens to be seeing a theatrical release. As disappointing as the visuals are, at least they signal a certain ambition to properly resemble the aesthetics of the graphic arts source material. The film itself is a disaster in nearly every way.

Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht) was shot for dead, but didn't die. Instead, he has returned to the mean streets of metropolis Central City as the Spirit, a masked, indestructible crimefighter in cahoots with police chief Dolan (Dan Lauria). The Spirit has a weakness for every woman he comes into contact with, but there are really only two loves in his life—the city he has been born and raised in, and the gorgeous, albeit materialistic, Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), who skipped town when they were both still teenagers. In between jumping across buildings, smooching dizzy dames, and blathering on incessantly (either in narration or straight to the camera), The Spirit meets his most formidable opponent in the form of scientist-cum-terrorist The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson). The Octopus has eight of everything and wishes to rule the world—don't all megalomaniac with too much time on their hands?—and The Spirit is the only one with half a chance to stifle his plan.

"The Spirit" has gone so wrong in so many ways that all the audience is left to do is stare in terror at the screen, mouth agape and legs akimbo. Why would legs be akimbo? Beats me, but it somehow sounds appropriate. The movie jumps right into the barebones story without providing background to who The Spirit is; all that is uncovered is that he's lecherous, undefeatable, and has a perverse relationship with an entire city. He is also apparently mentally troubled, since he is overly serious and brooding most of the time, but occasionally slips into the mode of a lame, pun-loving, one-liner-spewing comic without warning or reason. One minute The Spirit is rifling through a bag of gags, and the next he is breaking the fourth wall and delivering grade school-level philosophy about his life, his city (whom he calls "mother"), and his women. In one scene he is getting a toilet knocked over his head ("Come on, toilets are funny," The Octopus incorrectly states), and the next he is dreaming about any number of tempting females from his past who we learn zilch about. Nothing comes of these, or of his waking relationships. Then he chases The Octopus some more. It proceeds on like this throughout, repeating itself over and over again, never to improve. Yes, it's as empty and perplexing as it sounds.

The lowest of expectations are not met by "The Spirit." The picture has no sense of timing, rhythm, or pacing. The editing by Gregory Nussbaum resembles the style of a silent film, where scenes would just abruptly cut off in midflow and switch to something else. It's just as well. The rest of the scenes are long-winded, talky, flat, uninteresting, and about nothing. Action is poorly shot and goofy rather than the least bit diverting, and these segments are rare to begin with. The plot does not build momentum toward anything, it just scurries around searching for a point. Eventually, all hope is abandoned and the last forty-five minutes are a crushingly boring endurance test. Whenever laughter enters the equation, it is out of disbelief that a motion picture filled with recognizable stars could be so amateurish. Then you start to feel sorry for them.

Each and every cast member looks to be acting in a separate film from their co-stars. One would have a better chance of forming an emotional connection to a ball of dust than to these one-note stick figures. Gabriel Macht (2007's "Because I Said So") appears confused to how he got cast in this title role; he is handsome enough, but decidedly slight. In following the script, Macht does what is asked, but the results are uneven to the point of monotony. We as the viewer do not believe in The Spirit, or even particularly like him. There is never a reason given for why we should. Eva Mendes (2007's "Ghost Rider") is physically striking as Sand Saref, but for the leading love interest role her character is awfully shallow. When trusting her is put into question and she responds, in all seriousness, "I haven't shot anybody in days," it's not exactly the first step toward rooting for her. Paz Vega (2004's "Spanglish") has fun with swaggering, peppy, ultra-smart police detective Plaster of Paris, but that fun translates into a circus charade. Put her in white face paint and she'd be perfect as a mime. As The Octopus' right-hand woman Silken Floss, Scarlett Johansson (2008's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona") is so naturally talented that it's painful to see her struggle through a part she can't get a handle on. Was Frank Miller even on the set to reign these performances in?

And then there's the prolific Samuel L. Jackson (2008's "Lakeview Terrace"), adopting make-up, wide eyes and a cavalcade of costumes to play The Octopus. It's difficult to say if he's good or not when he constantly seems to be channeling Grace Jones by way of Uncle Remus from "Song of the South." The Octopus' fiery speeches about not wanting egg on his face—"No egg on my face!" he screams more than twice—are as listless and bizarre as the rest of it. Literally the only actor who escapes the film unscathed is Johnny Simmons (2007's "Evan Almighty"), a magnetic charmer as the younger version of Denny Colt. The glimpses into his teen romance with Sand Saref (played in flashback by Seychelle Gabriel) are better than anything found in the inert, robotic present-day sequences.

What else can be said of "The Spirit?" That all the actors involved should quietly take this off their immediate résumé? That director Frank Miller ought to stick to creating graphic novels rather than leading the way on a film set for the foreseeable future? That the picture's off-the-charts ineptitude is on the level of 2000's infamous "Battlefield Earth?" That a comic book movie hasn't been this strikingly ill-conceived since 1997's "Batman & Robin?" That when fans of "Sin City" take a chance on seeing "The Spirit," they will walk out 100 minutes later either shell-shocked, angry, or refreshed from the nap they have just experienced? Yes, all of the above.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman