There is much that is irksome about THE SPIRIT, so much, alas, that it overwhelms the spiffy art direction that is nothing short of dazzling. Written for the screen and directed by Frank Miller, and based on the graphic novels by Will Eisner, it is a syncopated series of missteps and gaffes served up in a misguided attempt to blend the hard-boiled cop story with a goofiness that doesn’t quite catch the requisite exuberant abandon of camp.
It looks great. Telling the story of cop, the eponymous Spirit (Gabriel Macht), who is dead but not inert, fighting a super criminal, The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), may be badly written but it is told with a color palette heavy on black and red, and a use of silhouette that explodes off the screen. Shadows float in both ethereal wisps and menacing slices. Skewed camera angles and perspective that is a plaything to the psychological creates an illusion, not substantial, but persistent, that something interesting is going on. It’s not.
Macht looks great. Whether in boxers at the start of the film as he lurks in his lair with a herd of pet cats, or swooshing over rooftops in trademark black fedora, coat, and hi-top tennis shoes, red tie streaming behind him like a feudal banner, or pitching, or being pitched, woo by the lovely ladies of the piece, he is toothsome. The fault is with the uneven tones he is made to adopt. One minute he is a square-jawed hero without a trace of irony as he muses on destroying evil, one minute a slapstick punchline spewing all the wit of a limp noodle. Jackson is better, starting with overwrought and leaping at light speed from there. Sporting a distracting array of eye makeup choices, and some deliciously evil, not to mention beautifully tailored, fantasy costumes, he is giddy villainy at its best, eyes starting out of their sockets in perfect orbs of malevolence. That his character is also concerned that people might find out that he doesn’t provide health insurance for his army of bulbous and blandly smiling clones (all played to the hilt by Louis Lombardi), and that he has a hostile attitude towards eggs shows that Miller, wherever else he went wrong here, knows his stuff when it comes to creating memorable bad guys. Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Paz Vega, and Jaime King, are stock characters, femmes fatale, a virtuous angel, and a Siren singing a seductive invitation to the Big Sleep, but shot with suitable glamour lighting and wardrobe to die for. The exception is Stana Katic as Officer Morgenstern, who seems to have been told that bad acting and a loud voice were what was called for in the role.
The writing is painfully, thuddingly, deadeningly banal. Macht is forced to speak directly to the screen in great swaths of exposition that exhibit a bad case of logorrhea, stating the obvious, going off on tangents, and then petering out without really going anywhere. The structure of the script overplays the mystery of how The Spirit and The Octopus are somehow brothers, fumbles the backstory instead of blending it smoothly into the through-plot, and gives criminally short shrift to what was in the box that Mendes’s character was so desperate to possess.
In the interests of full disclosure, and to be scrupulously fair to THE SPIRIT, it did have what may be my favorite line of the entire film year, “Shut up and bleed.” It’s not only great, it’s delivered with by Mendes with perfect amoral ennui. It’s a quintessential distillation of what a good hard-boiled cop flick with supernatural overtones should be. And everything that THE SPIRIT as a whole isn’t.