As both Jeffrey and James note here, critics in general got pretty animated about The Spirit, and not in a good way. Occasional GreenCine contributor Scott Weinberg wrote on Fearnet: "If, however, you like your films to include stuff like good sense, character development, internal logic, and a smooth-flowing story ... well, all I can say is that someone should have gotten Robert Rodriguez on the phone." But hold the phone! say Jeffrey and Jim, in their, er, spirited defenses of the film, enjoying it for what it is.
Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ***
Due to holiday pressures and deadlines, I missed the press screening for The Spirit, as well as its Christmas Day opening. (One of my colleagues informed me that he "was willing, but The Spirit wasn't.") I didn't catch up to it until it was all but pronounced dead a couple of weeks later.
And as it began, I found myself grumbling at the stupid dialogue right off the bat.
But as the film went on, I discovered that it had a kind of appealingly dumb, playful quality. Indeed, it's far more low-key and purely enjoyable than either the amazing but grim Sin City (2005), which Frank Miller co-directed, or the aggressively stupid 300 (2007), on which he's only credited as the creator of the source material. It moves in a similarly artificial, elastic way, but without the fetishistic need for excessive violence. Here Miller is paying tribute to the great comics pioneer Will Eisner, a man whose work any comics nut worth his newsprint should know. (Eisner's work has often been rightly described as the Citizen Kane of comics. I definitely recommend them to potential viewers.) To that end, Miller effectively combines his own style with Eisner's style, which was starkly visual, but also humorous.
The movie spends a little, but happily not much, time on the hero's origin before getting down to business: supervillain the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) wants a vial of blood that will make him immortal. High-class jewel thief Sand Saref (Eva Mendes) wants some golden armor that once belonged to Jason (of "the Argonauts" fame). These items are -- for some reason -- packed in identical crates that are, of course, mixed up. The Spirit must stop all the bad guys and save the day. And of course, Sand provides some romantic tension. She's actually the Spirit's childhood flame, returned after years away from her hometown of Central City.
The movie's main flaw is Gabriel Macht, a dull pretty boy cast in the lead role. Likewise, Scarlett Johansson, as the Octopus's henchwoman Silken Floss, is a bit too earthy to fit into the artificial surroundings, but Mendes, Jackson and many other cast members have a ball. Jaime King appears as some kind of "angel of death" that keeps trying to coax The Spirit away from his earthly plane, Louis Lombardi appears as an endless series of cloned, mindless lackies (with names like "Pathos," "Ethos," etc.) and Miller himself has a small role. But no matter what else, the movie is amusing, moves well and always looks great. (The end credits, filled with Miller's original drawings, are worth sticking around for.)
The Spirit took such a drubbing from both critics and fans that it almost requires a new, second-wind cult following. If you get the 2-disc set, there are some good extras from Lionsgate: a commentary track with Miller and producer Deborah Del Prete; two featurettes, including "Green World" (22 minutes), about the largely green-screen production, and "Miller on Miller" (16 minutes); and an alternate ending in storyboard form (with actor voiceovers).
Now James Van Maanen weighs in:
Rating (out of five): ***
Under-rated? The Spirit? Absolutely. But then I have never read the comic book on which the movie is based, so I am rating the film purely on my first-time encounter. My companion, however, right after we finished watching the film, weighed in with, "That came closest to the actual experience of a comic book than almost anything else I've seen." I'd agree with that assessment. As conceived and directed by Frank Miller, the visuals approach "drawn art" -- with color (most often bright red) used sparingly and cleverly. The tone is a little loony, which turns out to be just right for the story, which is pretty silly itself. But silliness, done with style and charm, is something that's been generally missing from our movies of late, so The Spirit is welcome in this regard, too. The way Miller and his cast negotiate the film noir look and the deadpan tone is commendable.
That cast, particularly Samuel Jackson and Gabriel Macht as villain and hero respectively, and all the many beautiful women -- from Scarlet Johansson to Eva Mendes, Paz Vega, Stana Katic, Sarah Paulson and Seychelle Gabriel (as the young version of the Mendes character) -- are enjoyable to watch and easy on the eyes. The movie makes fun, but joyfully, of everything from the comic book mentality to fist-fights that never end, characters who don't quite die and a bad-boy hero who loves his girl but can't keep his eyes and hands off every woman in sight.
In many ways, the film reminded me of two other "failures" that were more fun than expected: Russell Mulcahy's The Shadow (from 1994) and Simon Wincer's The Phantom (from '96): the former with its wonderful art décor look, and the latter offering heroine Kristy Swanson the chance to ask villainess Catherine Zeta-Jones the memorable question, "Why are you so mean?!" In The Spirit, the violence is stylized, and so is the sex (the PG-13 rating is, for a change, absolutely appropriate).
I make no case for the greatness of this film, mind you. But when Macht awakens to find himself tied to a dentist chair and says "What smells dental?" And then looks up to see a Swastika hanging from the ceiling and follows with, "Great: dental and Nazi," you'll imagine that the kind of silly fun to which the film aspires has been reached. But you'd be wrong--because then Jackson and Johansson appear in full German WWII regalia, and things get even loonier.
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