Friday, January 2, 2009

If his city screams and nobody's paying attention, will it make a noise?

The Spirit
Starring Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, and Scarlett Johansson
Directed by Frank Miller
Rated R

Frank Miller's The Spirit does not seem to be at all in the . . . er . . . "spirit" of Will Eisner's comic book. I found the more interesting of Eisner's stories to be those that were not really about the Spirit at all. The best stories from The Best of the Spirit are about unusual villains, ordinary guys who actually have secret desires and grudges that we would not expect by just looking at them. The Spirit himself is fairly uninteresting--it was Eisner's ability to spin a yarn and break the edges of the comic book panel, opening up the page to unique layouts that increased the medium's storytelling potential that made the comics fun to read.

Therefore, it is surprising that Miller is fairly uninterested in any of this. Granted, Miller is known for recreating old characters, including Batman in his classic The Dark Knight Returns as well as the awful All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder--where the lead character introduces himself to Robin as "the Goddamn Batman" and calls him "retarded". Frank Miller's The Spirit, unfortunately, falls more in the league of the latter comic than the former.

Miller tries to "sex up" the Spirit a bit with a superpower--Wolverine-like invulnerability--whereas the original had none. Again, it was the cleverness of the story and its telling that was the real draw to Eisner's work. But other than a unique visual style, there is little clever about the movie. I doubt there is a single thought or emotion that goes unspoken, often multiple times with cliched dialogue delivered by actors who have no investment in their one-dimensional characters.

One of the worst scenes of the movie--which was incredibly long, or at least felt that way--starts with the Spirit waking up tied to a dentist's chair. There are swastikas and pictures of Adolph Hitler on the wall, suggesting a brutal torture a la Laurence Oliver in The Marathon Man. Jackson walks out dressed in Nazi regalia--just in case you didn't realize he was evil--and delivers a dreary expositional speech about all of his evil plans, explaining to a disinterested audience the various MacGuffins that are at play in the movie. At the end of the scene, instead of an evil Nazi dental pick used to tear the Spirit's gums to pieces until he bleeds to death, we get Paz Vega in a slinky outfit with a big knife.

Of course, only one question remains afterward--what the fuck was that all about?

The rest of the movie is a mess. The dark and moody scenes we saw in the trailer with the Spirit jumping across roofs and delivering Dashiell Hammett-like lines about how his city screams and how he uses it as a weapon are few and random. These are juxtaposed against scenes with goofy comic book dialogue and bad action. I mean really bad. We're talking about Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner bad, without the intentional humor. At one point, the Octopus--Jackson's character--picks up a toilet and slams it down on the Spirit's head. "Toilet bowls are funny," he says, in case we didn't get the joke.

Near the end of the movie, Jackson pulls out two guns with four barrels each, declaring "I'm the Octopus! I have eight of everything!" That might have been more useful at the beginning, because at least we would have thought we knew why he had that name--of course, he doesn't have eight of anything else, so it doesn't really explain anything.

But what he should have said is "I have eight motherfucking barrels on these motherfucking guns!" Then the movie could at least have strived for so-bad-it's-good territory.

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