Review: The Spirit

Frank Miller’s latest directorial effort goes all-out for the camp and ends up in the toilet.
By  · Published on December 24th, 2008

The Spirit (2008)
Written and Directed by Frank Miller
Starring Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of stylized violence and action, some sexual content and brief nudity.

Story: After an incident in the line of duty left him about dead, Central City Detective Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht) mysteriously reemerged as The Spirit, the city’s masked protector. Armed with the ability to take a ridiculous amount of beating, The Spirit sets off on the case of two missing crates. One has been taken by the evil mastermind known as The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) and his gang of genetically altered goons, and the other has landed in the hands of a blast from the past, a sexy jewel thief known as Sand Saref (Eva Mendes). Now he must dodge the arrows of love and bullets of evil to save the City that he loves.

Review: Stupid, stupid, stupid. Chances are that your reaction will be somewhere along those lines after a viewing of Frank Miller’s The Spirit. Though in all fairness, if you are seeing The Spirit this week you fit into one of two categories. Either you’ve been handily duped by one of the most mediocre marketing campaigns in the modern era, thus deserving of your punishment. Or you are genuinely interested in seeing what Frank Miller has cooked up in his directorial follow-up to Sin City. Either way you are bound to be disappointed, because what Miller has delivered is the most remarkably unremarkable moviegoing experience of 2008. It is quite possibly both one of the worst comic book adaptations I’ve ever seen and one of the neatest looking films of the year all at the same time.

The trouble begins when we combine the expectations of a Frank Miller movie with the final product at hand. Anyone who has seen Sin City or read Miller’s work in comics would probably go into this film with the expectation of something dark, potentially gritty and incredibly unique. And if there was any humor, it would based in irony or delivery. But instead of going down that road, Miller chose to stick to the source material’s general campiness, one of the only elements that seem to have survived the adaptation process from Will Eisner’s original work. The real problem is that Frank Miller the director doesn’t appear to understand how to mix the Sin City visual tone with the camp. And many of the moments in the film that are supposed to be funny, most notably an early fight scene between The Spirit and The Octopus in which The Octopus uses some literal toilet humor, end up coming out as simply awkward.

The same can be said about the romantic storylines, which are abundant. The character of The Spirit has always been a womanizer of sorts, and in this film he’s got plenty of targets. It translates into tons of eye candy thanks to the lovely collection of Eva Mendes, Jamie King, Sarah Paulson and Paz Vega. Unfortunately good eye candy does not a good movie make. Every time we see The Spirit encounter one of these delicious dames, it is another round of one-liners that fall flat. And speaking of performances that fall flat; Scarlett Johansson, who plays The Octopus’ calculating right hand chick Silken Floss, is painfully wrong for this movie. Sure, she glows in the sunlight and Frank Miller loves her from neck to waist, but she can’t act her way out of a paper bag. Hell, she can’t even go silly and campy. Instead she spends the bulk of her screentime looking like a Community College theater troupe understudy who’s been thrown on stage unexpectedly.

Gabriel Macht is another misaligned piece to this jagged puzzle, though it has little to do with his acting abilities. Macht’s problem is that he is playing a different version of The Spirit than what appears to have been written. The version that makes it to the screen takes himself a little too seriously, even for a film intended to be comical and campy. In a more serious, dark adaptation of a similar character he might work. Unfortunately that is not the movie Frank Miller set out to make.

One of my other few loves in this movie is easily Sam Jackson. In his role as The Octopus, The Spirit’s arch nemesis, Jackson proceeds to whoop it up with loud outbursts and a characteristically campy presence. In fact, he seems to be the only member of the cast that realizes what sort of film he’s in. Everyone else, including the far too serious for his own good Macht, seems to think that they are acting in some sort of green screen dominated period piece, in which serious characters might exist. While everyone else seems to be putting their most dramatic foot forward, or in the case of Eva Mendes her most bare-assed foot forward, Jackson appears to be having fun dressing up in wild costumes (including in one scene, a Nazi officer’s uniform — which is just plain creepy) and yelling at the top of his lungs. Though as a fan of Jackson’s edgier stuff, I would have liked to see Frank Miller and Lionsgate go full-on with the language, R-rating or not. Because lets face it, kids aren’t going to go see this movie either way — you might as well let Mr. Jackson lay down some F-bombs, as he’s been known to do so well. The only thing that bothered me about Jackson’s character was his inexplicable and useless obsession with eggs, a reference made several times over the course of the film. Just another example of a campy film making all the wrong moves and coming up laughless.

In the end the problem with Frank Miller’s The Spirit is that Frank Miller never really appears to have a grasp on what movie he’d like to make. Is he making Sin City 2 or is he adapting The Spirit? Either way he’s failed miserably. To his credit, he did write a solid story and he has recaptured some of the cool visuals that he and Robert Rodriguez achieved with Sin City, though this movie never feels anything but awkward in its own flashy skin. If you go in looking for something akin to Sin City, don’t be surprised if you find yourself watching the Looney Tunes version. And if you are headed in looking for some good campy laughs, you aren’t going to find those either. What you will find if you see The Spirit this week is a big pile of disappointment, wrapped neatly in Frank Miller’s directorial shame. Sorry Frank, just like everyone else I am still waiting patiently for you to reconnect with a real director and give us brilliance with Sin City 2, just please don’t make any more of these duds in the meantime. I don’t know if your film career can take much more of a beating — it isn’t built like The Spirit, you know.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)