For those outside of the oft-maligned geekdom that is the world of comic books, the name of Frank Miller is no more recognizable than name of the bagger at the corner grocery store. Those in the know, however, recognize Miller as one of the masters in a medium that has a significant influence on popular culture. He is a brilliant artist and storyteller able to animate and give depth to characters in a form that is inherently resistant is nothing short of genius.
It should come then as no surprise that when Hollywood finally gave him the keys to an entire film – directing and writing responsibilities – it would be the project of bringing the Spirit to life, a comic hero of unique complexity that was the creation of Miller’s mentor and fellow comic hall of famer, Will Eisner. What Miller brings to the screen in The Spirit (releasing April 14 on DVD and Blu-ray) is a near-perfect representation on film of both Miller’s distinctive visual style and the comic book form.
The Spirit (Gabriel Macht, Because I Said So, The Good Shepherd) is the assumed moniker of Denny Colt, who was shot down in the line of duty, died, and was brought back to life by a compound created by a criminal mastermind called the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson, Kill Bill, Star Wars Episodes I-III, Pulp Fiction). The Octopus’ procedure gives Denny Colt powers of regeneration rendering him effectively invulnerable, but having been laid to rest he makes the decision to hide his identity and become the spirit of his hometown, Central City. Observing that his compound was successful, the Octopus undergoes the procedure and a hero/villain relationship is born. For the record, invulnerable enemies make for intensely cataclysmic but non-conclusive battle sequences.
Aiding the Spirit are Police Commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria, The Wonder Years) and Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson, Down with Love), the commissioner’s daughter and physician who both patches up the Spirit and pines for his affection. Assisting the Octopus is Silken Floss (Scarlett Johannson, Lost in Translation, The Nanny Diaries), hyper-organized and patiently malevolent in contrast to the impulsive madness of her benefactor. Together, Floss and the Octopus are scheming to obtain a case containing the blood of the Greek demi-god Heracles, the only substance that can correct genetic abnormalities that arose from imperfections in the procedure for which the Spirit and his nemesis owe their powers of regeneration. At this point, the story intersects with a character from the Spirit’s past, Sand Saref (Eva Mendes, Ghost Rider, Hitch) who possesses the blood of Heracles and will trade the item for something that she desires and which the Octopus possesses.
All of the characters and storylines are woven into an interesting narrative, visualized in the dark and dramatic manner characteristic of Miller. As might be expected, the women in The Spirit are femme fatales without parallel, and in this way the talent involved should be acknowledged. The performances of Mendes, Johansson, and Paulson (as well as the minor role of Officer Morgenstern, played by Stana Katic) are sexy and solid, and the exquisite camera work captures every sweep of flesh in voluptuous detail, including the graceful curves of Sand Saref’s bare posterior.
But, as worthwhile as a film is that gives us a backstage pass to Ms. Mendes’, um, backstage, there is something static about the movie’s imagery and it may stem from Miller’s discipline as a creator of comic art and his lack of training as a filmmaker. The camera never tilts, pans or trucks; a sign of respect for the visual power of medium from which The Spirit is adapted. Each shot is a carefully planned composition that is able to tell its story without using the adjoining shots for context, in the same way that each frame of a comic book is a miniature story that can stand independent of its neighbors. But, while the result is a dazzling exhibition of the Miller style – film noir with the contrast flared and tint added to achieve striking emotional effect – the film leaves much lacking in its ability to draw audiences into the world of the characters and to build suspense.
One of the acknowledged drawbacks of comic books, even when they achieve the level of artistry in Miller’s work (Dark Knight Returns, Sin City), has nothing to do with the artist or writer. The limitation of comic books is the lack of control over the reader. Pacing can never be dictated, and as time is the primary component of rhythm and suspense, and a secondary component of character development, these elements are usually left out of the mix, replaced by blunt dialogue and action.
Despite its weakness, The Spirit provides a lot of action, thrills, and beautiful visuals that are sure to entertain viewers. As for Miller, he is going to be make additional movies and I think he will learn as he goes along. His mind is too creative to stop learning this craft that is relatively new to him and I cannot wait to see what his next project provides for audiences.
[This post originally appeared on UnequalTime.com at http://unequaltime.com/2009/04/dvd-preview-frank-millers-the-spirit-entertains-but-falls-short-of-greatness/]