Sure, why not? Frank Miller should direct a movie. After all, a couple of this decade's biggest hits - Sin City and 300 - were based on his groovy graphic novels, and his presence as part of the Hollywood machine dates back to the revival of a certain 'Dark Knight'. Yet except from a minor credit as part of Robert Rodriguez's green screen tour de force, he had no previous time behind the lens. Of course, it's hard to confuse imagination and style with set management and narrative coherence, but when you've got geek nation backing your every whim, who cares about such things as experience or expertise? Money talks and the possibility of making more of it still walks, so Tinsel Town gave Miller a solo shot to realize one of his life long pet projects - a big screen adaptation of his take on Will Eisner's funny book crimefighter The Spirit. Promising something akin to Sin City 2.0, and hyped beyond all pre-publicity purpose, the film was poised to be one of 2008's last minute gems. Instead, many found it to be a big ball of...well, let's just refrain from unnecessary vulgarity, shall we? In fact, in reconsidering the film for DVD, it's clear that, instead of junk, this is one of those rare culpable delights that gets better (and ballsier) with each subsequent viewing.
Central City is a metropolis soaked in crime and corruption. Chief among the felonious perpetrators is scientific genius and murderous madman The Octopus. Along with his right hand henchwoman Silken Floss, he's manipulated his own DNA to make himself invincible. Now he wants the fabled blood of Heracles to become immortal. The only thing stopping him is a pair of unnecessary advisories. One is Sand Saref, an international thief who is desperate for the fabled Golden Fleece that Jason and the Argonauts sought. The other is The Spirit, a masked crimefighter with a lot of questions about his own strange healing powers and a past as a member of the police force. Not even his doctor gal pal Ellen Dolan can figure him out. Naturally, all of these dispirit characters will come face to face when both the blood, and the fleece, turn up.
In the grand scheme of things, The Spirit is not the cinematic abomination most critics made it out to be. Of sure, it so buries itself in Will Eisner's naked noir noddlings that you can almost smell the femme fatale's stale perfume as she walks into the seedy bar filled with cheap booze and Central Casting extras, and if anything, Miller is even more hardboiled and hopeless, but this doesn't mean the movie sucks. Instead, this is clearly an experience where you have to crank up your internal Oddball Oscillator and get directly onto this movie's manic wavelength. Properly tuned in and ready for anything, you'll enjoy the heck out of this ridiculous romp. Fail to find the proper frequency, and you'll be shaking your head like a Congressman considering another AIG bailout. Miller makes a lot of mistakes here: He thinks Eva Mendes walks on beauty queen water (she more or less sinks, in actuality); he employs one too many "death dream" sequences; he skips over subplots that would be far more entertaining than the main super heroism; and worst of all, he forgets to bring the blood. In a movie where almost everything is black/white or sepia toned, a little splash of arterial red would definitely accentuate the frequently violent confrontations.
And yet none of these stumbles are fatal to The Spirit. Or sure, when it falters, it staggers and lurches like a drunken sailor on shore leave, but oddly enough, the movie never falls down and dies. Instead, Miller finds fresh and inventive ways of keeping us preoccupied and unconcerned about the frequent flaws. Three of these potent pluses are actors Gabriel Macht (as our hero), Sarah Paulson (as his long suffering doc gal pal) and Samuel L. Jackson (as arch nemesis and all around flamboyant fashion plate, The Octopus). Together, this trio could salvage almost any plagued project. Macht gets the combination of valor and absurdity just right, while Paulson looks lifted directly from a 1950s melodrama. The chemistry between the two is obvious and their scenes spark with a kind of kinetic sexuality that's sadly lacking whenever Ms. Mendes walks onscreen. But it's the always amped up Jackson who's the black messiah here. He literally struts in and lifts The Spirit to levels of lunatic likeability that the film would otherwise lack. With an equally appealing Scarlett Johansson as his right hand moll Silken Floss, he's a classic villain recast as cruel culture clubbing mofo. His Nazi-tinged showdown with the title hero is a true camp classic.
Still, it's not hard to see why comic book film fans rejected this revisionist slice of choice cheese. Miller isn't making the typical caped crusader with psychological struggles epic here. This is old school meat and potatoes b-movie melodrama, complete with screwball dialogue, horizontal blind lines, and a ramped up sense of right and wrong. Our lead is like a mangled moral compass. He won't stop for anything until the Octopus is dead - even if that means hurting everyone around him (or simply forgetting they exist for a while). Mendes' character is also a very tough sell, aside from the actress's shortcomings. She's a sweet little girl at first, but then turns on a dime (or several million of same) to show her true gold digging self. It's hard to support The Spirit's obsession with Sand Seref, since the whole Material Girl gimmick is so hollow and vacant. And anyone desperate for an origin story will have to settle for a last act bow to the character's "creation". While informative, it's not inspired. For everything it gets right - for the look, the feel, the heft, and the hokum of the Eisner original - The Spirit soars. Everything else keeps it grounded in goofy guilty pleasure platitudes.
As with the previous films mentioned as inspired from Miller's work, The Spirit almost mandates a theatrical experience. The film is just so over the top and outsized that the small screen, no matter the home theater set-up, suggests you'll get less than the full visual experience. Here's hoping the Blu-ray lives up to the title's optical propaganda. In the meantime, the standard DVD is actually pretty good. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks excellent, with perhaps a bit too much "white" in the mix. Sequences where Miller indulges in intense lighting and sharp monochrome contrasts threaten to overwhelm the display, but overall, the images are crisp and proficiently controlled.
Now, here's the real rub. All throughout the accompanying commentary track, Miller talks about an "unrated director's cut" of the film featuring all the gore and gruesome killings he had to cut out of the movie to get the demographically determined PG-13 rating. He mentions it during the opening of the film. He states it again when Jackson's dimwitted henchmen are slaughtered over and over. Perhaps this will appear on the Blu-ray title, but as far as this critic could tell, there is no "unrated" material on the current DVD release. Rats.
As is the norm nowadays, The Spirit comes with a professional, polished Dolby Digital 5.1 EX audio mix. The dialogue is easily discernible, and the balance between the music, the foley, and the atmosphere created by Miller is maintained flawlessly. While it may not be the most immersive experience in the realm of multichannel digital recreation, the audio aspects of The Spirit are very good indeed.
There are two intriguing bits of added content offered here. The first is the aforementioned audio commentary from Miller and producer pal Deborah Del Prete. Both clearly adore the film and make no bones about complimenting it all out of proportion. Most of the unnecessary praise gets aimed at onscreen nonentity Eva Mendes, but we also learn about a far more graphic "kitten melting" sequence, the infamous "foot thing" moment, and Miller's ongoing fascination with all things female. It's an interesting if fluffy discussion. The second is an "alternate ending" (offered in storyboards and rough animation) that argues for a more 'hands on' demise to the Octopus. Indeed, after the explosion, Miller proposed that The Spirit literally rip the villain apart, fists pulling bits of body part and organ out in a systematic ritual of slaughter. Clearly not keeping with the PG-13 mandates of the movie, it was removed. Toss in an obligatory green screen discussion, a look at Miller's career, and a trailer, and you've got some decent cinematic supplements (By the way - the second disc is nothing more than a digital copy of the film for download).
In a year which saw both Iron Man and The Dark Knight elevate the comic book movie into the stuff of cultural myth, something silly and swaggering like The Spirit was destined to fail. Like listening to The Partridge Family after immersing oneself in The Beatles for several months, there's just no way the types can compare - favorably or otherwise. In retrospect, this is a fun little film which didn't deserve to be unmercilessly slammed as garbage by most of the general populace. When placed in perspective - and home video does that so, so well - many will realize just how weird and wonderful this film is. At the risk of reducing his reputation even further, this critic will give the title a Highly Recommended rating. All the misguided material, the attention to a certain actress's null set sexuality and cheddar like cheesiness cannot detract from what is a visually appealing, cinematically enjoyable experience. Miller may not ever make it back behind the lens, but unlike others who jumped into the director's chair without giving the concept a good once over, at least he can exit with his reputation semi-intact. The Spirit is not perfect, but it's not pathetic either. It's merely misunderstood.