Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Spirit Soars

Adapted from the legendary comic strip, THE SPIRIT is a classic action-adventure-romance told by genre-twister Frank Miller (creator of 300 and SIN CITY). It is the story of a former rookie cop who returns mysteriously from the dead as the Spirit (Gabriel Macht) to fight crime from the shadows of Central City. His arch-enemy, the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) has a different mission: he’s going to wipe out Spirit's beloved city as he pursues his own version of immortality. The Spirit tracks this cold-hearted killer from Central City’s rundown warehouses, to the damp catacombs, to the windswept waterfront ... all the while facing a bevy of beautiful women who either want to seduce, love or kill our masked crusader. Surrounding him at every turn are Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson), the whip-smart girl-next-door; Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), a punk secretary and frigid vixen; Plaster Of Paris (Paz Vega), a murderous French nightclub dancer; Lorelei (Jaime King), a phantom siren; and Morgenstern (Stana Katic), a sexy young cop. Then of course, there’s Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), the jewel thief with dangerous curves. She’s the love of his life turned bad. Will he save her or will she kill him?

Now that they've gone and made Batman all serious and good, the campy comics hero movie mantle has been taken up by "The Spirit." Will Eisner's brilliantly designed and drawn strips about a slightly supernatural crime fighter originally appeared in freestanding Sunday newspaper inserts in the middle of the last century. They were packed with inventive visual effects, hardboiled dialogue and sly satire. But in trying to transfer that approach to the screen, adapter-director Frank Miller, an acclaimed comic book writer and artist who was friends with the late Eisner, loses command of his narrative as thoroughly as he exerts control over the film's imagery. This is the first film Miller has directed by himself. For the movie of his graphic novel "Sin City," he teamed up with the more experienced Robert Rodriguez. The same high-tech approach was used on both productions; actors were shot on soundstages against blank green screens, and anything behind them was later painted in with computers. Colors were generally muted for a close but not entirely black-and-white look. But "Sin City's" ridiculous adolescent fantasy was a lot easier to indulge than "The Spirit's." This one's more pronounced self-mocking tone isn't the only reason for that, but it's the main culprit. There are some scenes that are tremendously cool in the picture. If you can swallow the imitated style, it looks fantastic. And the ladies serve up a nice helping of eye candy, especially Eva Mendes (and her valuable assets) as well as Stana Katic as the rookie cop Morgenstern. If you can get past the film’s ultra-corny dialogue and own cleverness, which is its ultimate downfall, you might enjoy it. In the end, there’s a part of me that really enjoyed “The Spirit,” and I actually recommend it if you want a bit of the comic book flavor this holiday season. However, it would have fit better were it not dropped into the movie houses on Christmas Day against so many other films. All of Frank Miller’s sins are forgivable with this movie, and I do still consider him a creative genius. I just hope that he spreads his creative wings in his next effort. I look forward to what he has to offer in a sophomore effort. Denny Colt (boyishly charming Gabriel Macht) is a rookie cop gunned down in the line of duty. Through mysterious circumstances he doesn’t understand, he’s resurrected as something not quite human. He shrugs off blows that would lay low the mightiest palooka, and machetes and bullets merely irritate him and slow him down. He dons a mask and strikes a deal with Police Commissioner Dolan (gruff and perfect Dan Lauria) to go where Dolan’s officers cannot, to wage a new kind of war on the criminals of Central City, a filth-streaked urban hellhole. Every hero needs a nemesis, and the Spirit has a humdinger in the form of the Octopus. As inhabited by Samuel L. Jackson, he is a former city coroner looking for the secret of immortality, prone to violent outbursts and Cheshire Cat smiles, and assisted by his cloned and none too smart goons Pathos, etc (Louis Lombardi) and Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), one of several femmes fatale shoehorned into the plot. The story, created in the 1940s by comics man Will Eisner, isn’t important, anyway. Miller has seen two of his works, “Sin City” and “300,” adapted into hugely successful films. Their directors, Robert Rodriguez and Zack Snyder, established a certain visual style in comic book films, and Miller doesn’t deviate from it in any great measure. Central City, towering gray monoliths wreathed in snow, isn’t too far from Basin City of “Sin City.” It’s a city where the police are overmatched and people hide behind curtains rather than aid a passerby calling for help. Miller’s joy at pairing his astonishing visual sense with a worthy budget is evident in many of his compositions, which are stark and often iconic. The same attention is on display in every scene. But given the Spirit’s Sunday-comics origins and the pulp-turgid nature of the plot, it’s welcome. The dark, hopeless scenery is fortunately leavened with some sharp dialogue, with the Spirit and his various female foils cracking wise in small exchanges that wouldn’t be out of place in a screwball comedy. Lombardi is entertaing here playing off of himself in certain scenes as the Octopus' cloned henchmen with each name across his shirt, each ending in "Os" (Pathos, Huevos, Rancheros, etc). Miller does tend to keep the reins a bit too slack on Jackson, however, and allows him to indulge in his unfortunate tendency to scream his dialogue. But “The Spirit” is terrific entertainment. It’s a better and a more complete film than “Sin City” or “300.” Having a comic book genius create a comic book movie is a very, very good idea indeed. I was thoroughly entertained, being a comic book nerd myself. A happy 3 on my "Go See" scale.

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