Will Eisner's The Spirit has existed for nearly 75 years, although most modern audiences probably aren't familiar with the original comic. The masked crime fighter enjoyed immense popularity during the 1940s, thanks to his unique attire and abilities that, despite the "super powers", were rooted more in reality than your average comic hero. The influential series was adapted into several forms over the years with little success, including a short-running comic strip and this 1987 TV movie starring Sam Jones (Flash Gordon) as the eponymous hero. He's also known as Detective Denny Colt before his apparent murder allows him to create a new identity with ease. Protecting the citizens of Center City with the help of Commissioner Dolan (one of a select few aware of The Spirit's true identity), the blue-suited hero's first mission is to stop a series of art thefts and fraud at the local museum. Conceived as a TV pilot that never got picked up, this 1987 production of The Spirit is light and harmless, but strangely entertaining under the right circumstances.
Several supporting players are capable enough, including Gary Walberg (Quincy, M.E.) as Commissioner Dolan, Philip Baker Hall (Magnolia) as Colt's doomed mentor Sevrin, and McKinlay Robinson (Night Heat) as femme fatale P'Gell Roxton. Two Star Trek alumni are also present: Nana Visitor (Deep Space Nine) portrays the commissioner's lovely daughter and Daniel Davis ("Moriarty" in two fan-favorite TNG episodes) plays it straight as museum administrator Simon Teasdale. As for The Spirit himself, Jones does a suitable job: he's physically suited for the role, with just the right straight-laced, winking demeanor needed for this interpretation. Of course, die-hard fans of Eisner's character may not appreciate what's on display here, since The Spirit leans slightly towards camp without going into full-on Batman 1966 mode.
Stylistically, this incarnation of The Spirit feels somewhere between Sledge Hammer! and Dick Tracy, though it never takes full advantage of either extreme. For a potential TV series pilot, The Spirit does a good job of establishing key players, setting up future plots without feeling like a cliffhanger, and establishing a tone that would've likely evolved into something more worthwhile in the future. Yet for all its good intentions, this 64-minute production still doesn't have the spark necessary to generate much more than a passable response from fans of the genre. There are fundamental problems, such as limited set design (just look at that "cemetery"!) and some badly drawn-out scenarios, especially two in which our fearless hero is lazily left for dead by the bad guys. Still, those with a soft spot for camp will enjoy its occasional charms, capable performances and sporadic fisticuffs (including a ridiculous amount of haymakers), but most won't return to The Spirit very often. It's certainly better than Frank Miller's 2008 adaptation...but hey, what isn't?
Warner Bros. offers little support for The Spirit on DVD, other than "welp, here you go". Included as part of the studio's "Archive Collection", this burn-on-demand disc---available at Amazon, as well as direct from the studio---offers little more than this 64-minute production in a format that isn't VHS or YouTube (although, as a DVD-R, it likely won't even hold up as long as an officially pressed disc). Featuring a painfully average A/V presentation and no extras, this is one release that only a niche audience will consider. Honestly, it would've been much better suited as a digital download.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Pretty much what you'd expect from a low-budget TV pilot from 1987. The Spirit, presented in its original TV-friendly 1.33:1 aspect ratio, was obviously taken from a mid-grade video source and exhibits all of the associated flaws: softness, faded black levels and a slightly muddy color palette. Mild compression artifacts, haloing, occasional speckles of dirt and other eyesores can also be spotted on occasion, but they're not overly distracting. In fact, one benefit of a lesser video presentation is that it hides some of the imperfections of low-budget set design, in the same way those old Star Trek: The Next Generation DVDs disguised many of the dated special effects. Either way, I'd imagine that most curious fans of the franchise will just be happy to see The Spirit in a format that doesn't degrade with each viewing.
Unsurprisingly, the Dolby Digital 1.0 mono presentation doesn't exactly knock your socks off either. Dialogue and music occasionally fight for attention (especially during the first 20 minutes), while the majority of source audio and stock effects frequently sound thin and/or muffled. Optional subtitles or Closed Captions have not been provided, so you'll probably need to crank this one a little louder than usual to understand every word being said. This isn't a total loss by any stretch, but a bit of elbow grease---or captions, at the very least---would've improved the situation somewhat.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Almost no effort...but again, it's hardly surprising. This one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase with matching disc art and no inserts. The static menu screen (a stock image of the WB water tower) has one option: "Play", and that's it, though chapter breaks are at least present. Obviously, no bonus features have been included either.
The Spirit certainly isn't for everyone: you'll definitely need an appreciation of campy, tongue-in-cheek crime fighting to appreciate this one-shot production (as well as an open mind, if you're a long-time fan of the character). Even so, I've seen much worse when it comes to TV pilots, and who knows? With a little more spit, polish and room to breathe, The Spirit might have enjoyed a reasonable amount of popularity...especially during the 1980s. Warner Bros' "Archive Collection" DVD is an extremely tough sell: it's just over an hour, the A/V presentation is lacking, bonus features are nil and it's priced more than $20. Unless you've seen and really enjoyed The Spirit in a lesser format, Rent It at the most.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.