I went into director Frank Miller’s big screen adaptation of comic book legend Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” with few pre-conceived notions. Having only read a small number of Eisner’s original comics, I didn’t know much about the character going in. But on the other hand, with the previews and trailers seeming to indicate this movie would be “Sin City” 1.5 in terms of art direction, I knew enough about the comic books to know that this style might conflict a bit with the source material.
Despite this conflict, or perhaps because of it, somewhere inside “The Spirit” is a great film. Its potential can be seen in bits and pieces all over the screen, making it all the more disappointing when it just never quite follows through on that potential.
First, comic book fans should know ahead of time that there are some major changes from comic-to-screen. Changes to characters are made to seemingly make them work better for a two-hour live-action movie, and possibly to make “The Spirit” more familiar to fans of other recent successful superhero films, leading to a few awkward moments.
Some of the acrobatics that title character performs for example just seem strange. Not cool ... not “wow” ... just strange. Most of these moments occur in the high-action scenes, and can pull the viewer right out of the rest of the movie.
These moments, however, were contrasted by mostly great dialogue by director/screenwriter Miller, and some effective one-on-one interaction between the various actors. The scenes between The Spirit and each of the film’s bevy of leading ladies always entertained. Each of these women had their own unique strength and style, and they all stood out at one point or another as if they were the star of the film.
Eva Mendes as Sand Saref particularly clearly seemed to enjoy her role. She played the sexed-up ultra-thief well, but her character never seemed fully developed, like part of her story wound up on the cutting room floor.
The best chemistry on screen, however, belonged to The Spirit and Commissioner Dolan. Gabriel Macht and Dan Lauria seemed like old friends (which, as it turns out, in real life they are), student/mentor and foils pitted against one another. Their give-and-take was spectacular, and a real highlight of the film.
Samuel L. Jackson’s Octopus was the least established of the characters pulled from the comics, and at times came off as a caricature. ‘Over the top’ doesn’t do justice to the ridiculousness of Jackson’s portrayal. If the respected actor dialed it down about 70 percent, then it would have been over the top.
Again, Miller’s dialogue shined in Octopus’ conversations with The Spirit, but any time he wasn’t directly addressing the hero, Jackson just came off as goofy. There was never any menace or threat inherent in the character, and while that may have been intentional, it never felt right.
All these supporting players revolve around the titular one, of course, and Macht does a good job throughout, peppered with moments of greatness, shining in particular while playing off his co-stars. In his rare moments of solo on-screen time, his presence just isn’t quite strong enough to stay compelling, and the shift to almost entirely cartoony shots mixed in with those strange acrobatics doesn’t help.
Visually, despite the impression the trailers may leave, the “Sin City”-ish effects and art direction does not in fact dominate the film. There are lots of other colors other than the ultra-noir black & white, and more “realistic” settings throughout the movie, with the ultra-stylized moments chiefly occurring during The Spirit’s patrols and monologues.
These sequences wind up coming off oddly, with the transitions in and out of near-animation a bit too jarring and unnatural.
The mosh of comedic banter and noir-ish drama worked well for the most part, but ultimately, those aforementioned moments of potential that flash and peek out now and again are too far and few between to save “The Spirit” from being a disappointment. The deviations from the comic book source material may also bug die-hards, but because Eisner’s creation is much less known to more mainstream audiences than some other iconic superheroes that likely won’t be a widespread problem.
If this film does well enough to rate a sequel, and with some more directorial seasoning under Miller’s belt, perhaps future installments could achieve the greatness this one just frustratingly teases. As it stands, “The Spirit” does a precarious balancing act juxtaposing great moments and terrible ones, leaving audiences likely be split over which makes the greater impression.