Director: Frank Miller?
Starring: Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Sarah Paulson
UK Release date: 1 January 2009
Certificate: 12A (103 mins)
“Well, it wasn't as bad as Zidane,” I pleaded.
My colleague harrumphed and said five words, of which the only three the editress will print are “Yes it was”.
But you can see how it all made perfect sense at the commissioning conference:
1) Batman, Spiderman and Dennis the Menace have all worked on screen.
2) Can anyone remember any other decent cartoon characters from their childhood?
3) Yes, why not? Let’s give Will Eisner’s The Spirit a go. After all, it worked in the 1940s.
The snag of course is the difficulty of bringing to celluloid "life" (now there's a relative term) characters that have never previously required any greater depth than that obtainable with a bit of shading from a HB pencil – characters which were only created half an hour before a deadline sixty years ago to fill a couple of pages every week with sufficient authenticity and back-story to catch the imaginations of American eight-year-olds for ten minutes on a Friday evening. The imaginative powers of an eight-year old suspend disbelief a whole lot better than any amount of computer-generated imagery, even if this production had the budget for that kind of stuff. And certainly, there’s plenty of disbelief to suspend. But a film needs a bit more than a comic; not necessarily moral complexity, but a vague semblance of doubt about the villainy of the villains, the authenticity of the goodies and some degree of suspense as to the eventual outcome. The Spirit has none of these.
Let’s start with the villains, because they’re obviously having more fun. Samuel L Jackson is Octopus – a villain of little moral complexity – a run-of-the-mill bad boy next door who hasn't had an unhappy childhood or been repressed by the evil nature of society. He's just a good old-fashioned mad evil criminal genius, hell-bent on world domination (or destruction – he’s never quite sure which) just because it seems like a good idea at the time. Think ‘Dr No’ with added Original Sin. To establish his villainy beyond reasonable doubt, he dresses in Nazi regalia, wears a monocle and attacks his (Blofeld-like) small fluffy white cat with a dentist's drill. Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) is his female lieutenant who has no back-story whatsoever and is straightforwardly unencumbered with any kind of moral thought, not even that of personal reward. She is perhaps cinema's first entirely altruistic villain – she does evil because it's there. But we know she's really bad because she's a smoker.
So, Octopus & Silken Floss set out for world domination / destruction (seems to depend on the time of the month). Step one is Octopus' invention of an elixir of youth. After much experimentation, producing large numbers of cloned mis-shapen white cats and cloned mis-shapen expendable proles, he finally has a testable product (satisfyingly formulated as a bright green injectable fluid). But like all careful clinical researchers, the key is testing it on real humans. Enter our hero! Gabriel Macht is Denny Colt, a young idealistic cop killed in the line of "dooty" and resuscitated by The Octopus' youth serum, not merely to new life, but to complete indestructibility. But now, having just had the classy funeral with full military honours, weeping young wife and expensive casket, it is of course socially unacceptable for him simply to return to business as usual (which seems a bit tough on the young wife). So he re-brands himself as "The Spirit" – a caped crusading crime-fighting super-hero, distinguishable from all the others by his bright red tie, with an indestructible super-body and an abiding love for the elderly decaying 1950's retro-dystopia that is "Central City”. And this is where an odd film gets proper odd: the backdrop is 1930’s Chicago, the vehicles are 1950’s sedans, but everybody’s got a laptop and a mobile phone! In case you haven’t got the point already, this is a comic, let’s not take it too seriously. And while we’re at it, why on earth did a film set in an urban dystopia with no animals larger than Octopus’ expendable cat need to credit an “undomesticated quadroped wrangler”?
The one time Miller permits The Spirit a bit of purple prose is when he speaks about the city – an elderly, raddled, cranky old harridan of a city, that is his ‘mother’ and he is her ‘Spirit’. The effect is part-Batman, part-Sam Spade, part-Chandler, but mostly Taggart on a Saturday night. Just for one horrid moment, you fear that he’s going to break down and tell you about his childhood growing up in the school of hard knocks on the streets of Central City with an alcoholic father and a careless mother. And the film goes a little way down this road before realising it’s a mistake and The Spirit gets back to battering row upon row of bad guys.
But the serum of youth has some unfortunate side effects. The Spirit’s (presumably intended to be endearing) foible is a roving eye. He falls deeply and instantly in lust with every young lady he meets between the ages of 18 and 30. The romances rarely endure for an entire scene, but at least serve to divide the audience into chortling chaps and fulminating females. The poor Spirit must wonder how James Bond gets away with it. The key, he should be told, is keeping it to one per film. Otherwise, the ladies can get tetchy.
In this context, it’s a bit difficult to work out what constitutes ‘good acting’. If nobody’s taking it too seriously, probably the best actor is the one who gets the most laughs – in which case the diamond encrusted knuckle-duster must go to Scarlett Johansson. It's also a bit difficult to work out genre: the blood volume and body count are a bit high for comedy, but it's much too risible for thriller. But at least you’ll be reassured to know that in the end the goodies win, the baddies lose, but there’s just enough of them left to give the cartoonist somewhere to start with the next episode.
I still think, pace my colleague, that it still beats 90 minutes of Gallic spitting, strutting, philosophising and head-butting, but it’s a close run thing.
Paul O'Reilly SJ
Visit this film's official web site