The Spirit (2008)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 1/1/09
Director: Frank Miller
Cast: Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, Dan Lauria, Sarah Paulson, Stana Katic, Paz Vega, Jaime King, Seychelle Gabriel

Much like the film adaptation of "Dick Tracy" (1990), "The Spirit" is a beautiful and incoherent mess. Unfortunately, director Frank Miller is a bit out of his league here, and not surprisingly the film works better as a collection of still images rather than a motion picture. Based on Will Eisner's comic strip from the 1940's, "The Spirit" follows the exploits of a resurrected and nigh invulnerable police officer (Gabriel Macht) who fights bad guys and woos beautiful dames. His nemesis is a super villain known as The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), who has dreams of world domination. Things get very interesting for The Spirit when an old flame named Sand Saref (Eva Mendes) shows up in town and starts making a mess of things.

Of course the film is utterly gorgeous, playing out like a comic strip with a high contrast palette of muted colors. Very similar to the look and feel of "Sin City" (2005), Miller's framing and composition betrays his background as a comic book artist. This suits the material perfectly, but is also its greatest weakness. While you may be able to read twelve panels of dense monologue in a minute or two, presenting it onscreen can take up to twenty minutes, sucking all the life out of a scene. This is exactly what happens in "The Spirit." The film grinds to a complete halt halfway through as The Octopus dons a Nazi uniform and explains in great detail how The Spirit came to be and what his diabolical plans for world domination are. It's excruciating, not to mention rather odd. The film suffers from numerous other pacing issues, choosing to delight in its own visual splendor rather than weave a tight narrative. While the majority of the visual effects are superb, there are a handful that look terrible and simply don't work. Thankfully, most of these happen early in the film. The awkward dialog adds to the film's noirish charm, but causes the actors to appear more wooden and stilted than they should. Gabriel Macht lacks presence and charisma, but otherwise does an adequate job with the role of The Spirit. Samuel L. Jackson is completely ridiculous and over-the-top as The Octopus, which nicely fits the mold of "crazy comic book super villain." The film's biggest shortcoming may well be the uninspiring performances of its two lead actors.

However, where the film REALLY shines is in all of the female supporting roles. All of the women in the film are strong, smart, and dangerous, and they're the ones running the show. They're The Spirit's greatest weakness, and even The Octopus is merely a puppet of the deliciously sinister Silken Floss (jaw-dropping Scarlett Johansson). Frank Miller definitely has an eye for the ladies, and he films them exquisitely. I've never paid any attention to Scarlett Johansson before, but she is utterly amazing in the film. She devours her bad girl role with such ferocity that you can't help but surrender to her devilish charms. In a word, she's fabulous. Eva Mendes is also quite stunning and commands every scene she's in. Perhaps even more stunning is newcomer Seychelle Gabriel, who plays the young Sand Saref. Wow... Paz Vega is lovely as the sadistic Plaster Of Paris, Stana Katic is delightful as the overly enthusiastic Officer Morgenstern, Sarah Paulson expertly fills the good girl role, and Jaime King does her best Carmen Electra impersonation as Death herself. It may be a uniquely male observation, but all of these ladies will stay in your memory long after you forget about the film itself. Overall, "The Spirit" is not mainstream entertainment and requires an open and creative mind to appreciate and enjoy. If you like movies that have good writing, good acting, poignant drama, and a logical narrative, you'd best look elsewhere.