Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
January 2009


Frank Miller offers new comic stylings, with mixed results, in 'The Spirit'

The Spirit
Lionsgate Films
Director: Frank Miller
Screenplay: Frank Miller, based on the comic-book series created by Will Eisner
Starring: Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Scarlett Johansson, Dan Lauria and Jaime King
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 43 minutes
Opened December 25, 2008
(out of four)

I thought Frank Miller deserved about as much credit for the brilliance of 2005's Sin City adaptation as did director/editor/cinematographer Robert Rodriguez. But in Miller's first solo venture behind the camera - adapting not his own work this time, but that of one of his predecessors in comics, Will Eisner - Rodriguez's touch is missing . . . and missed.

The Spirit is an adaptation of Eisner's comic series, but infused with Miller's more over-the-top sensibilities. It operates under the same rules and with the same style as Sin City. High-contrast compositions popping out like comic-book frames. Genres, eras and wardrobes mixed and matched without etiquette. Sex-laced violence and violence-laced sex . . . or at least the suggestion of it. And everything, of course, taken up to 11.

The Spirit has all the same surface qualities as Sin City, only weirder and more eclectic and more shamelessly ostentatious. As one online poster I ran into remarked, it's like Frank Miller trying to out-Frank Miller himself - and everybody.

As vivid and colorful as The Spirit is, there's something to be said for restraint. No, not restraint - control. Miller has shown little. It's as if he thought every idea that occurred to him was a good one. So we have scene after scene of campy depravity, comically absurd juxtaposition, hard-boiled posturing, spicy femme fatales and just plain randomness . . . all thrown into a shapeless void.

To some extent, that works to Miller's advantage. None of this can be taken as anything more than deadpan comedy. And it is funny - very funny at times. Even if it doesn't always make sense. Even if a lot of ideas simply don't work.

The problem is that, unlike Sin City, the base material really isn't all that strong. The story is virtually non-existent, the characters little more than symbols - particularly the female characters, who perform the assorted roles of protector, mother, villain, saint and whore, all at the same time. The pleasure we derive from The Spirit comes only in fits and starts, and it's only in the padding. The movie is exceedingly episodic. The point of one scene doesn't really fit with the next, and it doesn't have to.

The Spirit himself (Gabriel Macht) - an ex-cop who came back from the dead to protect his city - is only interesting when, say, his nemesis, The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) is dressed up in a Nazi uniform waxing absurd about becoming a God, threatening to cut our hero up into tiny pieces and melting - yes, melting - a helpless kitten as an intimidation technique.

And of course Sand Saref (Eva Mendes) is interesting . . . but only when she's caught in various stages of undress or photo-copying her delectable derriere. Her backstory? The plot? Meh, let's move on.

Despite all the entertaining foolishness and implied (but never blatant) obscenity and camp value on display, The Spirit is oddly timid with its treatment of both violence and sex. Maybe Miller is trying to hearken back to the subtlety in such matter of the 1940s, when the source material was born. Then again, since nothing else in this movie is subtle, what's the point?

In the end, The Spirit simply seems distracted by itself. Overwhelmed. Like a movie that has become a self-parody . . . only it's aware that it's a self-parody . . . and it doesn't care. This is a movie completely true to itself and its creator - the problem is consistency. If Miller could corral himself and pick and choose his ideas more judiciously . . . well, what am I saying? We've already seen the result of that, and it was called Sin City. Let's hope there's more where that came from.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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