Yes, as you’ve heard by now, THE SPIRIT is a terrible movie. But don’t fall into the trap I did. Just because almost everyone agrees that it’s terrible doesn’t mean it’s funny or interesting to watch. I thought it looked bad from the trailers and really had no interest until I started seeing some of these reviews comparing it to various landmarks in bad movie history. The more vicious the reviews got the more I started to think shit, I kind of want to see that. People acted like it was some bizarre Ed Wood type shit that they couldn’t believe they were seeing.
Well, there are a couple weird touches. For some reason Samuel L. Jackson’s villain character, The Octopus, talks about eggs all the time. Seriously, he just keeps bringing them up – “I beat you like an egg,” “I don’t have egg on my face,” etc. etc. It’s worse than Tarantino’s obsession with feet. Also there’s a part where SPY KIDS style home computer effects depict a little tiny head attached to a foot that hops around on a table in front of him and he keeps saying it’s “plain damn weird.” I kind of wish writer/director Frank Miller was in the theater to experience the uncomfortable silence as the scene milked the “joke” over and over again for a couple minutes, clearly convinced it was hilarious.
The story involves a mysterious super hero dude called The Spirit who sort of helps the cops and gets in a fight with Sam Jackson and gets a toilet broken over his head. But the Octopus implies there is a secret that ties their pasts together, and then everybody dresses up like nazis and kills a cat. Also the Spirit’s childhood girlfriend is back in town trying to steal the same treasure that would give the Octopus super powers or I don’t know, who gives a shit. Not me and not you, I guarantee you.
Scarlett Johansen plays a sexy nurse or secretary who works for Jackson and drives him around. I like the girl but she has no idea how to handle this dialogue and comes off like an idiot. Eva Mendes does the same thing but, let’s be honest, that’s what she’s known for. The police commissioner is played by the dad from the Wonder Years. I guess if I had to choose the best performance it would be this dude Gabriel Macht who plays the Spirit. He’s kind of like Casper Van Dien might be after hanging out with George Clooney for a month. He does his best to embody the spirit of, you know, whatever this thing is supposed to be. (that’s not a pun by the way, it’s a coincidence.)
Some of the shots look kind of cool as individual stylized images, but this is clearly the work of an amateur director. There’s just no sense of pacing, acting or storytelling. It’s all the problems of SIN CITY without many of its strengths. It’s Robert Rodriguez’s cheesy tendencies without his natural born filmatist skills.
I guess I can sort of in concept admire Miller’s dedication to his own stupid idea of what’s cool. At least he doesn’t try to copy what other people are doing that actually is cool. It’s pretty ballsy to start out the movie with a personification of death named Lorelei and a long, melodramatic voiceover monologue about the city being the hero’s special lady friend. It’s a metaphor I just summed up in an overly generous 8 words – he stretches it on for a couple minutes, and then returns to it again at the end of the movie. “She is my mistress. My lover. My damsel. My lady. My fuckfriend. My booty call. My one and only love. I wrap my arms around her streets and run my fingers through her glistening chimneys. She is my city; the only one I would go down on. Ordinarily I’m not into that but for her, I would do anything. Sorry Meat Loaf.” (paraphrase)
In the early ’90s there was a small spate of these retro, defiantly cornball super hero movies, trying to partially modernize these old Saturday morning serial characters but also recapture whatever it was people might’ve liked about them back then, or something. So you had THE ROCKETEER, THE SHADOW and THE PHANTOM. All very flawed but also kind of fun. I especially liked THE PHANTOM where Billy Zane had the balls to wear a bright purple super hero outfit and ride around on a white horse in the jungle protecting African treasure from colonialists. I guess the Spirit looks more like the Shadow, but he’s that type of defiantly old school super hero – a dude in a fedora, tie and Kato mask. He’s a former cop who has mysteriously become immune to gun shots, so he decides to become a vigilante and a spy for the police force. Apparently his crimefighting mainly consists of clumsily jumping across roofs and stopping two pursesnatchers.
Okay, so let’s say you accept the cornball retro super hero deal. Now can I interest you in a SIN CITY hypermacho hard boiled noir thing also? I hope so, because The Spirit is gonna constantly narrate and flashback and talk tough about “broads.” When he disappoints his girlfriend by hitting on another woman right in front of her she will say “You bastard!” but then secretly smile to herself because she thinks it’s adorable that he treats her like human garbage. I’m sure all of America will love the retro super hero/chauvinism combo but just to appeal to a wider audience let’s mix in some juvenile humor like cartoon sound effects during fights, pants falling down and some wacky mentally deficient clones who wear t-shirts with their names written in bubbly cartoon font. That way we’re hitting all the bases of all the greatest things that make movies awesome. Mask, broads, pants falling down. Home run.
It’s all a bunch of tributes to obsolete entertainment styles that don’t mix that well. Didn’t we (those elite few of us) sort of like The Phantom because he was such an old fashioned boy scout? Would it really make it better if he was wearing that purple suit but lived in an exaggerated cartoon of a black and white city and there was blood everywhere? I don’t think those are great tastes that taste great together, necessarily. Maybe in the nerd world of comic books people are more accepting of this fetishistic nostalgia passing for a story because they expect less from reading a pamphlet for ten minutes than from paying ten bucks and 90 minutes to watch a production that took a year and millions of dollars to make and doesn’t have another installment coming for at least 2 years.
And maybe that’s part of the problem, is that those other movies I mentioned looked like they spent alot of money and time on them. This thing would be really impressive if some dude made it in his house and put it on Youtube, but for a major studio motion picture released in theaters it looks bargain basement. Not even bargain basement, more like garage sale. It’s suspiciously lacking in establishing shots, it always seems like it’s in closeup because they only have a 3’x3′ piece of brick wall background to put behind somebody’s head. It seems like it’s always CGI snowing but there’s rarely snow on the ground. They must’ve been real excited about a snow effects filter they had on their laptop.
The thing I really couldn’t figure out is Miller’s obsession with fuckin Converse All Stars. I think him and Will Smith’s character in I, ROBOT are the only people in the world who think Converse are all that fascinating to look at. I mean here is a guy wearing a suit, trenchcoat and fedora, and fuckin Chuck Taylors. It’s like those dudes who wear a suit and tie but then jeans instead of slacks, and that’s supposed to show that they’re laid back. It just looks silly but Miller is so proud of it that throughout the movie he does a special effect where the soles of the shoes are stark black and white like a xerox. So it draws your eye.
I don’t get it man, those aren’t even good footwear to be jumping roofs in, the soles are so flimsy and the traction’s no good. Plus, it’s such an outmoded stupid visual cliche for a cartoon character to be wearing Chucks. Here are a few other cartoon characters who wear Converse:
(I would’ve included a picture of the Spirit for comparison, but I can’t find any online that show his shoes. I guess the marketing people agreed with me on that one.)
THE SPIRIT is not so muçh a disaster as a miscalculation, a naive assumption that because people liked SIN CITY that they would also like whatever other stupid crap this same guy tried to do in the same style.
You know what it is, man? It’s nerd overreach. It’s like when one political party takes over the whole government. They start to get cocky. They lose track of reality. They go too far, so far even the people originally on their team get mad. The Nerdening of America may have reached that point.
I truly believe that my associate Harry Knowles and many of his colleagues and competitors have transformed western culture. As recently as the ’80s and ’90s being a nerd or geek was not something anybody would want to admit to themselves. They were the lowest of low, the socially awkward, the uncool. With the rise of the internet though came the rise of “geek culture,” and slowly these people reclaimed the word, turned it into a badge of honor. (I wonder if in 20 years people will proudly call themselves douchebags?)
Guys like Harry and Moriarty started to interview writers and directors and to some extent measure their worth based on if they knew about comic books or collected movie posters or some shit. We’re all used to these articles about, “Trust me, this is one of the good guys! He’s a geek like us, he knew everything about TRON, he has a tattoo of J.R.R. Tolkien on his calf, he has it in his will that a Mexican lobby card of KRULL will be burned and mingled with his ashes.” And people on the internet would become protective of these “geek” filmatists and their projects, hype them up on their websights and postings, petition the studios, force their nerd views into the conventional wisdom. The Nerd Panthers.
As their generation took over the media and entertainment industries the types of movies, TV shows and children’s comic books that nerds love became more widely accepted into the mainstream culture. Now magazines, TV shows and marketing firms try to reach out to “geeks.” They seem superstitious about the geek acceptance much like republicans going after that evangelical vote. In the last year Entertainment Weekly has done cover stories or entire issues on the San Diego Comics Convention, the Watchmen movie, Dark Knight, Iron Man and probaly other ones I’ve forgotten about. And in their endless chasing of zeitgeist tail they end up believing these “fanboys” as they call them might be right and they better be covering all this shit from a “we’re geeks just like you” perspective.
So when Robert Rodriguez made his movie based on the SIN CITY comic book, the table was set for him to try a pretty ridiculous experiment: why not, instead of taking this book and telling the same story as it fits best into the medium of film, dress up a bunch of dudes in Halloween costumes and have them awkwardly re-enact the exact drawings and every last word of the comic book using cheesy low budget special effects to make actual photographs into a limp imitation of black and white ink drawings? And in fact why don’t I quit the director’s guild so that they’ll allow me to have the guy who drew the pictures stand on set with me and credit him as co-director? Nerds always complain about comic book movies not being faithful to the source material, why not make the first ever UNCOMFORTABLY FAITHFUL comic book movie? It’s just so stupid it might work!
And I guess it did kind of work. I forgive SIN CITY its many shortcomings because at least it was an original thing to try, and I thought they were pretty good pulp stories, alot of it worked for me even though it looked like dudes standing in front of greenscreens, which in my opinion is exactly what it was. But if I may make some constructive criticism of the geek lobby – please don’t take this as racist against geeks, some of my best friends have glasses – the motherfuckers are way too god damn literal. Always talking about faithfulness and canonical this and the original that. I understand being a purist but I think some of these guys are sort of obsessive compulsive about it, they focus on one meaningless detail and miss the whole picture. For example I swear to Christ (and Christ will back me up on this I’m sure) there was a dude in the Chud comments on a story about a rumored “reboot” of the BLADE series, and he said he would see it if they went back to the original source material and used wood weapons instead of silver. To him it was the material that the weapons were made of that was interesting to him in that particular story.
What I’m saying is maybe SIN CITY is a pretty good movie that gets a little too much credit just for being literal about adapting the comic strip. That maybe Nerd America is too willing to accept literalness in place of actual cinematic quality. Unfortunately I can’t test that theory because this one is done in the same phoney greenscreen style as SIN CITY, but apparently the comic strip isn’t so much like that. So of course nerds want Frank Miller’s heart on a Lord of the Rings limited edition sword replica with certificate of authenticity for not being faithful. Okay, fine, but another reason to hate this is it’s a terrible fuckin movie. No need to get into the specifics of the adaptation.
If you must watch it, do it in a safe place surrounded by supportive friends.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.