The Spirit

Director    Frank Miller
Starring    Gabriel Macht, Samuel L Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Sarah Paulson
Release    25 DEC (US) 1 JAN (UK)    Certificate 12A
2 stars


3rd January 2009

There's no question Frank Miller's graphic novel Sin City - and the subsequent Robert Rodriguez movie adaptation - glorified violence. In Miller's own adaptation of Will Eisner's '40s superhero serial The Spirit, he's guilty of glorifying something else: tits. Rather than swing with Sam Raimi's light and frothy Spider-Man movies or follow the dark path trodden by Christopher Nolan's Batman pictures, Miller wants not to thrill or kill, but to titillate. You certainly can't argue that The Spirit isn't pleasurable on the eye; remove its fine female supporting cast, however, and the movie sags like a pair of spaniel's ears.

If you thought the movies of Michael Bay offered style of substance, welcome to Miller town. Adopting the highly stylised look of Sin City (the stark contrast of blacks, whites and reds) and adding a dash of colour (albeit from a desaturated palette), the director has crafted a movie which looks almost as good as Rodriguez's. Hero Denny Colt, aka supernatural crime-fighter The Spirit (Macht), appears frequently in silhouette; an imposing shadow cast on the snowy sky draped over Central City, his crimson tie fluttering in the wind. Scenes are framed in true comic-book style, composed with the exquisite skill of a master of the art. Sadly, Miller's art is graphic design - it ain't filmmaking.

With a mix of shadowy crime-fighting, gumshoe sleuthing and cartoon violence, the movie aims for a cross between Batman, Sam Spade and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? - an uneasy combination at the best of times. Though it never dares play the serious card, The Spirit is far too silly for the screen: its brand of camp, posturing action might cut it in the pages of a comic-book, but shot in the flesh it just looks embarrassing. Sin City and 300 were shallow, yes, but they at least had the illusion of depth. The Spirit is completely hollow.

One early fight between The Spirit and his arch-rival The Octopus (Jackson) sees them exchanging blows while knee-deep in mud, bonking each other over the head with anchors and ceramic toilets (seriously) while trying to maintain a veneer of coolness. Once it's been established that both hero and villain are basically impervious to pain, The Spirit loses any real sense of danger - it boasts all the depth of a Looney Tune. Yet characters continue to whale on each other regardless: it's wasted energy, pure and simple.

Jackson - a fine foe given the right script - has nothing to work with here. The Octopus makes for a bemusing baddie: the character lacks any physical menace, so Miller has him performing overtly evil tasks like dressing up in Nazi regalia (as it awkward as it sounds) and dissolving kittens like some demented pantomime villain. What's more, he has a bizarre and unexplained obsession with eggs, an apparent 'quirk' that highlights just how ludicrous The Spirit's script is. Clunky exposition is delivered throughout (sometimes The Spirit narrates via voiceover, sometimes to himself, sometimes to camera) and Miller seems in desperate in need of the explanatory captions that comic-books allow.

Then come the girls. Just when The Spirit's relentless silliness threatens to send you to sleep, along comes one of Miller's delicious dames to pique your interest. Watch for an Eva Mendes bum flash here, some spectacular Scarlett Johansson cleavage there - plus a Paz Vega belly dance thrown in for luck - but it's all mindless, gratuitous T&A and does nothing to advance the story. Only Mendes lends her character a third dimension, while Johansson struggles to justify her character's inclusion - she might as well be called 'Tits McGee' for all she's worth.

Not the unmitigated disaster many bloggers would have you believe but certainly not fit to clean the rim of Basin City, The Spirit is an interesting and titillating distraction and nothing more. As a comic-book, it's OTT sensibilities might feel more at home; certainly the clumsy narration wouldn't feel quite so obtuse. But this is a different medium, and making a movie requires more than just a keen eye and a busty cast list. Frank Miller will undoubtedly make a movie worth watching one day, but it isn't The Spirit.

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