Jan 4, 2009

The Spirit [12A]

Dir: Frank Miller
I’m not a comic book reader any more, and when I was I was a Spider-Man fan, so I don’t bring the baggage of being a fan of Will Eisner’s revered series to Frank Miller’s adaptation of The Spirit, but even so, it’s clear right from the off that something has gone horribly, horribly wrong with this baffling mess of a movie.

The problem is tone, Miller and Robert Rodriguez got away with the almost parodic noir of the rather overpraised Sin City because they never quite let it become parody, and because the dark, striking visuals matched the dialogue beat for hard-boiled beat. There was always some question about just how much of a hand Miller really had in directing Sin City, The Spirit would seem to suggest that if he did much on that set then a lot of it must have been undone by Rodriguez. Here Miller seems to want to keep Sin City’s noirish tone, much of his dialogue being, as Spinal Tap would have it, "none more black", but it frequently undermines itself by lapsing into dialogue, composition and action more suited to a Looney Tunes cartoon than to film noir.

These two layers, between which Miller flits more or less at random, mix slightly less well than oil and water, and make the experience of watching this film deeply frustrating, like being driven very fast down a twisty country lane by someone with no sense of direction, being constantly thrown from left to right and back again, with no idea where you actually want to be.

Miller must take the lion’s share of the blame for The Spirit’s abject failure, because he can’t blame the technicians. Cinematographer Bill Pope does a truly outstanding job, single-handedly lifting this film out of contention for worst of the year status. Pope is one the great blockbuster DP’s, having shot both The Matrix trilogy and the Spider-Man trilogy, and his lighting is truly beautiful and artistic, if only it were in a good film. In the other technical departments; costume, art direction, effects, the film also oozes style and quality.

So you have to come back to Miller, his script, his utter lack of coherence in the cutting room and most damning of all his direction of his cast. Poor Gabriel Macht never gets a grip on The Spirit, but that’s absolutely not his fault, because there’s nothing there to hold on to. The Spirit is, like all the other characters, no more than a mouthpiece for Miller’s supposedly cool dialogue. Scarlett Johansson is terrible, and as lazy as she’s ever been, letting the costumes and the make up done the work for her as she delivers another monotonous performance and picks up a pay cheque. Frank Miller clearly loves to film beautiful women, which is no bad thing, but he really can’t cast them. Paz Vega is a particular comic highlight, putting on the worst French accent in cinema history as Plaster of Paris (oh, my sides) but the unspeakably gorgeous Stana Katic wins the wooden spoon, giving one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen, one that suggests I should probably apologise to Scarlett Johansson for ever calling her monotonous. Really though, when Eva Mendes steals your movie you know you’ve done something very wrong (to be fair though it’s not her acting that does, it’s her bottom).

Only Samuel L Jackson really finds the tone, you can’t say he chomps the scenery, because there likely wasn’t any, but his ludicrous performance as The Octopus is so awful that it does cross the so bad it’s good boundary, and I’d like to think that Jackson did that on purpose. The Spirit is a dire film, but sadly, aside from some isolated moments ("Dental, and Nazi") it’s not quite bad enough to be entertaining rather than irritating, and the wildly misjudged tone makes it, beautiful as it is, utterly missable.

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