The Spirit is a fictional masked crimefighter created by cartoonist Will Eisner and first appeared in comics way back in 1940 despite remaining a somewhat popular character for decades he never reached the heights of say Batman or Superman and thus his road into other mediums never quite took.
The first live-action incarnation of The Spirit was a made-for-television movie released in 1987 and directed by Michael Schultz that was intended as a backdoor pilot for a new television series, this was not to be. This television movie follows the story of a police detective who is believed to be dead, in reality, he has taken on the guise of The Spirit, a masked crimefighter who patrols the streets of Central City. Along the way, he becomes embroiled in a plot involving a corrupt businessman, a beautiful thief, and a dangerous scientist, and while these all seem to be great ingredients for what could have been a fun action-filled ride it ended up being lamer than they were heroic.
The movie kicks off with Denny Colt (Sam Jones), a detective in East Amphett, Oregon, investigating the death of his good friend William Sevrin (Philip Baker Hall), who had been working on a book about crimes being conducted at the Roxton Museum in Central City. This leads to Denny crossing swords with Simon Teasdale (Daniel Davis), the museum curator, and his own murder when one of Teasdale’s goons lures him into a trap. Of course, our hero wasn’t going to stay dead, so shortly after being presumed deceased by the world’s laziest police force, Denny claws his way up out of the “grave” and sets up a base of operations in a crypt at the Wildwood Cemetery. While sporting the classic Will Eisner designed suit and mask, he will seek justice with the aid of the young street kid Eubie (Bumper Robinson) and Police Commissioner Dolan (Gary Walberg) as well as his lovely daughter Ellen (Nana Visitor), and though Denny Colt is “dead” The Spirit lives on.
• The film opens with William Sevrin crawling near dead towards the phone but when the house blows up he is suddenly able to sprint out the front door just so he can impart his last wishes to Denny Colt.
• Despite being updated to a modern setting Denny Colt still wears a trench coat and fedora as if his wardrobe had been stuck in a 1940s time warp.
• Simon Teasdale has his museum’s security guards throw Denny Colt out of the museum and bounce down the stairs, but as Denny is a police officer this should have landed them all in jail under an assault charge.
• Denny tells Commissioner Dolan “The criminals I captured are behind bars, where they all belong, but if those same criminals had been caught by Officer Denny Colt, instead of the mysterious Spirit, you’d still be in court stumbling over red tape.” In reality, it’s quite the opposite, as any halfway decent lawyer would point out that a vigilante leaving a bound suspect at the scene of the crime is not going to hold up in court.
One can understand the network thinking this take on a classic comic book character would be a success, the Adam West Batman series being a prime example of campy superheroes on television raking in the big bucks, but by the release of this film comic book fans had already moved past these campy offerings and had embraced more adult material like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, thus this offering from Warner Bros. Television fell on deaf ears and has become a mere footnote in the live-action world of superheroes. The costume designs by Brienne Glyttov were a solid attempt at a translation of what appeared in the pages of the Will Eisner but unlike how it was handled in the Warren Beatty Dick Tracy, which the comic book aesthetic to the nth degree, The Spirit costume in this film simply looked cheap and uninspired.
Note: The movie’s $2.5 million budget prevented them from making this a period picture, the original comic taking place in the 1940s, and that added to the visual disconnect between the hero and the world he was inhabiting.
While the movie has its flaws, it is a fun and entertaining romp that captures the spirit of the source material. Sam Jones gives a decent performance as The Spirit, playing him as a charming and slightly cheeky hero, unfortunately, the film suffers from a lack of depth in its storytelling and characters. The supporting cast is also somewhat hit or miss, with some actors delivering performances that are delightfully cheesy, while others come across as wooden and uninspired. The action scenes are well-staged and exciting, and the film’s overall look captures the pulpy, noirish tone of the source material. Modern viewers may look at these production values as being a bit dated, with some of the special effects and action sequences feeling a bit cheesy by today’s standards, however, the movie’s stylish visuals and catchy soundtrack help to make up for some of its shortcomings.
While The Spirit may not be a cinematic masterpiece it is a fun and entertaining adaptation of the classic comic book character and was a nice follow-up to Flash Gordon for Sam Jones as they both have a fun and cheesy appeal, not to mention that the screenplay by Steven E. de Souza has some nice comedic moments that give both Sam Jones and Nana Visitor some time to shine. Overall, fans of pulp adventure stories and superhero tales should definitely check this one out.
Note: In 2008 Frank Miller took his Sin City aesthetic to Will Eisner’s hero and the end result was as disastrous one could imagine, you can read that review here: The Spirit (2008).
The Spirit (1987)
Movie Rank - 6/10
Despite its flaws, The Spirit is an entertaining film that will likely appeal to fans of the original comic book or those who enjoy cheesy 80s action movies. It’s not a classic by any means, but it’s a fun way to pass the time if you’re in the mood for something lighthearted and nostalgic.