With the successful adaptations of two Sin City movies, based on the Frank Miller comics, it must have seemed like a great idea to give the man a shot at adapting the Will Eisner comic to the big screen as he was a big fan of the character, unfortunately, in the case of those Sin City movies Miller worked alongside genre-busting icons Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, while this time out Frank Miller was flying solo and the difference in the dynamic was deadly.
The first attempt at realizing a live-action version of The Spirit came in the form of a 1987 made-for-television film featuring Flash Gordon star Sam Jones, and by all accounts it wasn’t very good, but that was mostly due to its incredibly low television budget. Flash forward two decades and audiences were treated to a big budget theatrical release of Will Eisner’s iconic hero, and it was a helluva lot worse. This particular incarnation follows the adventures of Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht), the masked crime fighter known as The Spirit, as he battles against his arch-nemesis The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), in a plot that would appear to have been written by someone attempting to treat their attention deficit disorder with mescaline laced cocaine while also suffering from a concussion and crippling narcissism.
Note: In the comics, The Spirit’s costume consisted of a blue domino mask, a blue business suit, a blue fedora hat and matching gloves, but with Frank Miller utilizing his muted Sin City aesthetic that iconic look is drastically altered.
The aforementioned “plot” deals with the beautiful Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), who was The Spirit’s childhood sweetheart but is now a world-class thief. She is looking for the legendary Golden Fleece while The Octopus is trying to get his hands on a vase containing the blood of Hercules, which he believes will make him a god, but complications arise when Saref and The Octopus end up obtaining the item the other one wants. Hijinks ensue. The film also includes several characters from the source material, such as Commissioner Eustace Dolan (Dan Lauria), who is the one man who knows The Spirit’s true identity, his daughter Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson) who is also The Spirit’s part-time lover and personal physician, and finally, there is Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) a femme fatale assistant to The Octopus, who is only slightly less insane than her boss.
Over the years, The Spirit comic has embraced a wide variety of styles, from straightforward crime drama and film noir to lighthearted adventure as well as mystery and horror/comedy, unfortunately, this incarnation looked to be attempting to embrace all of those diverse elements into one movie and this resulted in a plot that was a confusing mess. With too many characters and subplots to keep track of, with cheesy one-liners and cringe-worthy dialogue, this resulted in most audience members rolling their eyes in disbelief that someone was actually paid to write this stuff. Miller obviously wanted to embrace the film noir element of Eisner’s original comic, which made his Sin City so popular, but his own personal aesthetic and brand doesn’t always works and in this case it fails badly. Miller often falls back on a tried-and-true rule for almost all of his previous works, “If all else fails give the viewer some really nice eye candy.”
The impressive cast assemble here were given a script that didn’t make a lick of sense, with dialogue that even the greatest thespian in the world couldn’t pull off with any sense of credibility, and this is The Spirit’s ultimate downfall because even if you let slide the fact that the story is a convoluted and confusing mess, with too many plot threads and characters to keep track of, even the most talented cast couldn’t rescue it when giving such horribly written lines to read, and this certainly not helped by the endless terrible monologuing of Gabriel Macht’s bland interpretation of The Spirit. The pacing is also uneven and really cripples the film, with scenes that drag on for too long, with some jokes beaten to death, while others are so rushed they seem nonsensical, leaving the audience confused and disoriented.
• In the comics, The Octopus never revealed his actual face, being a master of disguise, yet readers could always identify the character by the distinctive purple gloves he always wore, but when you cast Samuel L. Jackson in the part I guess that trait had to be ditched.
• Frank Miller has a cameo as soon-to-be-murdered Officer Liebowitz, which illustrates the fact he’s not only a bad director but a lousy actor as well.
• This script turns Will Eisner’s noble masked vigilante into some kind of bizarre James Bond-like lothario, one who all women fall in love with at first sight. Shall we chalk this one up to Frank Miller’s rampant sexism?
• In an interrogation scene, The Spirit asks The Octopus “What’s in the vase, Thor’s hammer?” as both Samuel Jackson and Scarlett Johansson appeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe this could be considered a half-assed wink to that movie franchise.
The characters, particularly The Spirit, are underdeveloped and lack depth and Gabriel Macht’s portrayal of The Spirit comes off as flat and unemotional, failing to capture the essence of the character’s complexity from Will Eisner’s comic. Worse off is poor Samuel L. Jackson whose characterization of The Octopus was so over-the-top and cartoonish that his mugging for the camera could be seen from the Moon. I will admit that Frank Miller’s adaptation does have its moments, particularly in its action sequences, which are entertaining in a goofy sort of way and the stylized noir look is eye-catching, but it borrows a little too heavily from Sin City rather than paying homage to Will Eisner’s comic strip. However, these few good elements are not enough to save the film from being a disappointment and will continue to confuse newcomers and enrage fans of the source material for years to come.
Note: Your ability to stomach corny hackneyed lines like “My city, I can not deny her. My city screams. She is my mother. She is my lover, and I am her Spirit” will be a major factor in your enjoyment of this entry.
Overall, The Spirit failed to capture the “spirit” of the original comic book series and is only memorable due to how judiciously bad it gets at times. The film’s chaotic blend of plot elements takes a backseat to Miller’s visual style, which makes this a prime example of how not to adapt a beloved property for the big screen. It’s one thing to stamp your own personal style onto a project but it’s also very important for it to make at least a little sense and it’s there where Miller drops the ball. This is a clear case of style over substance, so if all you care for is that wonderful eye candy found in the Sin City movies, then this film could be right up your alley, but fans of Will Eisner’s comic book hero may want to stay clear of this train wreck of a movie.
The Spirit (2008)
Movie Rank - 4/10
Frank Miller’s The Spirit has moments of visual flair and excitement but its flaws in plot, pacing, and dialogue ultimately prevent it from being either a good adaptation of the Will Eisner character or a good movie altogether.