Lionsgate // 2008 // 108 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // April 20th, 2009
Beyond the Grave. Beyond the Law.
I have a mixed attitude towards Frank Miller. I understand the importance of his work with Batman (The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One), but most of his work just doesn't grab me. I think he's a smart guy and a talented artist, but often only one at a time (see his gorgeous work on 300, especially). The only work by him I love unreservedly is Sin City, where his vision, intelligence, and artistry all combined to produce one of the best examples of noir in existence. The fact that Robert Rodriguez succeeded so completely in translating those stories into cinema is a testament to Miller's artistry, and signaled a shift to green screen-enhanced comic adaptations. The Spirit is the first such feature helmed by Miller himself (although he had co-director status on Sin City). Although I can't fault the film visually, those looking for Sin City's taut noir are sure to be disappointed.
In Central City, a hero has risen from the dead. The Spirit (Gabriel Macht, The Good Shephard) was a beat cop who was killed in the line of duty, but now he's back and seemingly indestructible, so he continues his crime-fighting mission. His arch-nemesis is The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction), who is trying to get his hands on the blood of Heracles so he can become immortal. It would be easy enough for The Spirit to stop The Octopus, but his old flame Sand Seraf (Eva Mendes, Once Upon a Time in Mexico) is in town complicating things.
This is the best I can say for The Spirit: I went in with low expectations, and I wasn't disappointed. I was looking for crazy Samuel L. Jackson, nice cheesecake, a pretty picture, fun violence, and more of Miller's excellent dialogue. Of these, only the last two were missing.
We all know that Samuel L. Jackson can be an effective dramatic actor. We also know that he doesn't take himself too seriously, so he's willing to go all-out for genre characters. The Octopus is one of his crazy characters and one of his more scenery chewing performances. His character is supposed to be a crazy mad scientist, and he manages to make the scientific babble he's given for dialogue work. It's nowhere near his best genre performance (I still prefer Snakes on a Plane), but fans of his more manic moments could do worse than this flick.
If there wasn't already, there's now going to be a Scarlett Johansson Nazi fetish website. That's only one of the many outrageous outfits the women in this film wear. Even when she's not dressed up as a Nazi, Johansson has a kind of naughty-librarian-meets-S&M vibe, which is a new thing for her. Eva Mendes spends the whole movie kitted out in hip-hugging dresses that do quite a bit to show off her assets. There's also a random belly dancer that I still don't understand, except as something pretty to look at. Although The Spirit isn't the most flesh-filled film, fans of any of the female actors are sure to enjoy their presence here.
Taking full advantage of current digital technology, The Spirit is a gorgeously shot piece of filmmaking. Green screen technology gives the film a Sin City-look, but The Spirit looks a little more polished than Sin City, probably because of the technological advances since then. The Spirit also trumps its predecessor in range of locations and digital props. As a kind of boundary for what cinema is capable of, The Spirit is certainly interesting.
Speaking of the look of the film, this Blu-ray release stands as an excellent reference disc. Although it's not a realistic looking film by any stretch, The Spirit was captured flawlessly at the source, and there are no compression or rendering problems that I could see. Fine detail is high, and blacks are nice and inky. The audio is a nice and aggressive mix that balances dialogue and effects easily. The low end has a satisfying thump, and the directionality was effective.
For extras, we get three featurettes that total almost an hour. "Green World" covers the process of translating the filmed image into what we see on the screen. "Miller on Miller" is a discussion of Miller's work from the author himself, while "History Repeats" looks at Will Eisner, the author of the film's source comic. There's also an audio commentary with Miller and producer Deborah Del Prete. There's some good info here, but the presence of a moderator to keep the participants engaged would have been nice. We also get a storyboard alternate ending, with voiceover work by Jackson and Macht. Through BD Live Lionsgate has provided special menus, and the ability to draw and animate parts of the screen to share with friends on their MoLog service (which, for my money, is the most poorly named online service I've seen in ages). Finally, for those who care, there's a second disc with a digital copy of the film.
For all of the above reasons, The Spirit is a watchable film. However, there are a couple of problems with the film that might be deal-breakers to some.
First, the violence in the film is all slapstick and cartoony. Samuel L. Jackson gets to wield a 10-foot-tall pipe-wrench, and the guns in the film look like something a coyote would order from Acme. It's a PG-13 film, so really intense violence is out, but it could have been more compelling than this slapstick rehash.
Second, the dialogue is simply atrocious. I know that many viewers never really get into noir dialogue because it's a very particular, heightened language. However, even you don't appreciate it, there's a certain artistry in crafting crime dialogue; it's not just a matter of throwing in words like "dame" and "shamus." Frank Miller obviously knows how to do it right, because his Sin City books are some of the most perfect examples of the form. You'd never know it watching The Spirit. Lines like "My city screams. She is my lover. And I am her spirit" are just plain horrible, and are delivered with gusto but no great artistry by most of the cast. I've sat through enough bad movies to become immune to bad dialogue, but those with weaker constitutions might be thrown off by some of the quotes in this film.
The Spirit is difficult to recommend to anyone but diehard comic-film junkies. Although it's pretty to look at, the story and dialogue barely creep up to average, making for tedious viewing for most. However, fans, or those who want to rent it first, will be well served by this Blu-ray disc. The audiovisual presentation is one of the best I've seen on the format, and the extras provide enough background to put the picture in context.
The Spirit may be beyond the grave and beyond the law, but it is often
beyond comprehension. Guilty.
Review content copyright © 2009 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Alternate Ending
* Digital Copy
* Cinema Verdict Review