Sunday, January 04, 2009

Review - The Spirit

Frank Miller has been riding the crest of a wave in Hollywood recently. His graphic novels Sin City and 300 were brought to the screen with a reverence and fidelity that was almost unheard of in previous film adaptations, and now he has been handed the directorial reins on another comic book project, although the abomination he has produced should curb his filmmaking ambitions for a while. The Spirit is adapted from a 1940's comic by Will Eisner, Miller's friend and mentor, who died in 2005. The title character (played by the vapid Gabriel Macht) is an ex-cop who was murdered and resurrected as a near-indestructible crime fighter, and who stalks the rooftops of Central City in his trademark black suit, mask and hat, with his red necktie providing the only dash of colour as he moves through the shadows, rescuing damsels in distress. The Spirit has a thing for the ladies, you see, and they have a thing for him; and in the course of this movie he'll cross paths with half-a-dozen scantily clad women, some of whom love him, and some of whom want to kill him.

His ultimate enemy is The Octopus (played by Samuel L Jackson in possibly the loudest and most irritating performance of his career); a mascara-wearing, gun-toting madman who wears flamboyant costumes and shouts about eggs a lot. He's eager to get his hands on a vase containing the blood of Hercules, and he is assisted in this aim by Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), who doesn't really do much aside from standing around awkwardly at the edge of the frame. Of course, The Spirit is ready to do battle with this dastardly foe, but what's surprising about the film is that their first confrontation with each other occurs within the opening fifteen minutes. The pair face off in a swamp and begin beating each other over the head with whatever comes to hand, but as both are seemingly invulnerable, the conflict just resembles a particularly long-winded and unimaginative episode of Itchy & Scratchy. At one point, The Octopus picks up a toilet and smashes it over Spirit's head, pinning his arms with the seat. "Come on!" Jackson cries, "Toilets are always funny!" No Sam, they're not.

It was around this point, as I tried valiantly to figure out what the hell was going on in front of me, that I suddenly had a startling thought – Frank Miller has no idea what he's doing. Miller already has one directing credit to his name – as a co-director on Robert Rodriguez's Sin City – but I'm guessing that was just a token gesture from Rodriguez, an appreciation of the man whose work he so obviously admires. In flying solo on this project, Miller quickly shows himself to be completely incompetent; a lifetime of filling static frames has not prepared him for the fact that movies actually need to move, and whenever he is faced with any kind of dynamism in this picture, he loses it. He cannot compose a shot to save his life, and he doesn't seem to know what his actors should be doing as they deliver their lines, leading to one embarrassing scene in which Jackson and Johansson walk back and forth across the screen for about two minutes while spouting expository dialogue. I should point out that they are dressed in traditional Japanese dress at the time, and later, when they capture and torture The Spirit, they both appear on screen clad as Nazis. The reasoning behind all of this escapes me.

In fact, there seems to be very little reasoning behind anything in The Spirit. The clothes and decor suggest the film is taking place in the era that Eisner originally set his comic in, but the mood is spoiled by mobile phones, laptops and enormous guns. Miller's plotting is practically incomprehensible, with flashbacks and weird fantasy sequences (featuring Jaime King as, I'm guessing...Death?) piling up on one another as Macht's ceaselessly dour narration drones on all over it. At least the flashbacks do feature the film's single commendable performance, from Seychelle Gabriel, who plays the teenage version of the character later portrayed by a wooden Eva Mendes, and she seems to be the only person in the film who has some grasp of her character. Everyone else just appears to be lost.

All of this begs the question – why on earth did nobody step in at any point in The Spirit's production when it became clear that Miller was producing the most amateurish superhero movie since Batman and Robin? I have no idea, but I'm guessing the line among the producers was something like "Hey, it looks a lot like Sin City and it has loads of half-naked women", so they let Miller get on with it. Sin City is obviously the model that Miller is aping here, but at least Rodriguez knows how to edit, how to shoot, how to direct, and that movie had fleeting moments of visual magic. Throwing gaudy flashes of colour and inconsistent silhouettes together in a nourish milieu does not amount to the same thing, and by the time the nonsensical finale arrives, Miller's desperation is almost tangible. The Spirit is empty of any logic, feeling or intelligence; it is visually and morally ugly, and the fact that this ineptly made garbage has been released in such a state is an insult. Some films are just plain bad, but The Spirit feels like nothing less than a crime against cinema.