Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Spirits Of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Dumb

The Spirit is much like a kick to the balls. Those of you with balls can attest to the fact that, at first, it doesn't hurt and you think you'll be fine. After a little bit, the pain starts to build and you accept the fact that it's only going to get worse but there's nothing you can do. Then, the big one hits and you fall to the ground crying. That's what The Spirit is like. It starts with some promise and you think, "Hey, this may be pretty good." Then, slowly, it starts to go down the Suck Spiral until it's dragged you down to a level where you are convinced that you're seeing Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johannson wearing Nazi uniforms while moronic triplets walk around them and they chatter on an on about various evil plots while they pass up the opportunity to kill their nemesis, the tied up and helpless Spirit, and you realize that, oh God, this ISN'T the stupidest scene in the movie.

This should have been good. Take a popular graphic novel that is a loving salute to old style pulp fiction detective stories, use special effects to copy the style of the graphic novel, cast some of the sexiest women working in movies and toss in Samuel L. Jackson in the role of campy, over-the-top super villain, mix it all together and it should have been a recipe for, "fun time at the movies." Instead, we got this cinematic shot to the gonads. So, what happened?

I suspect a great deal of the blame can be placed at the feet of director Frank Miller. For a few years now, Miller has watched as other filmmakers managed to take Sin City and 300, graphic novels he created that were described by almost everyone who ever looked at them as unfilmable, and make movies that not only made money but garnered considerable critical praise as well. He figured, "Well hell, I can do that," and pulled off the amazing feat of convincing Lionsgate Pictures to allow a first time director to do a big budget holiday release. Well, technically, it's his second time directing if you count Sin City when Robert Rodriguez allowed Miller to follow him around and nod whenever Rodriguez would say, "Here's what I'm going to do. You agree, right Frank?"

Miller made the critical decision to use the "filmed entirely inside some guy's Macintosh" look of Sin City but to also use that visual style far less artfully than Robert Rodriguez did. Thus, we get unintentionally funny shots of the Spirit running along telephone lines as well as a memorable scene where we got to see the bottom of some cop's shoe.

The title character of The Spirit is played by Gabriel Macht, known affectionately around Hollywood by his nickname, "Who The Hell Is" Gabriel Macht. He's actually pretty good in the role of a Denny Colt, a man who died and, somehow, came back to life with a super healing ability. He did what any of us would do in that situation, namely put on a mask and become a super hero called the Spirit. As I said, the movie starts off with some cool stuff. The Spirit gets word that his arch enemy, the Octopus, is doing something at least vaguely evil down by the docks. I must say, Samuel L. Jackson really does know how to play a flamboyant, over-the-top "BOW DOWN BEFORE ME, SON OF JOR-EL" super villain. He seems to be as in indestructible as the Spirit and constantly taunts him with mysterious facts about the Spirit's origin. He's really the best thing in the movie. Well, second best after Eva Mendes' wardrobe. Eva Mendes plays Sand Serif, a jewel thief who, in her professional life, has discovered that the best way to steal jewels is to dress up in tight, revealing outfits and spandex and is after the same thing that the Octopus is, that being a pair of cases containing...stuff. They each manage to get away with one of the cases but it turns out that each has the one that the other wants.

Sand Serif, it turns out, was the Spirit's high school sweetheart who, in an example of why people should never become comic book characters, turned to a life of crime after the brutal death of her police officer father. Naturally, she doesn't recognize the Spirit as the first boy she ever loved cause, you know, he has a mask around his eyes. I mean, yeah, the rest of his face is right out there but it's obviously one hell of a mask cause she doesn't have a clue. Sand was in town to procure the ultimate "shiny object," the legendary Golden Fleece. In what was apparently a two-for-one deal on mythical objects, it also came with a vase containing the Blood of Heracles. She got the Blood, the Octopus got the Fleece and now they need to swap. The Spirit wants her to help him nail the Octopus. Will she put aside years of criminal behavior and ice cold bitterness just because the guy to whom she's inexplicably attracted wants her to? I won't spoil the surprise.

The plot only gets dumber from there but don't worry because there's laughably bad dialogue to distract you from that. Frank Miller is a visionary and a genius in the medium of comic books and graphic novels but that doesn't mean he can direct a movie. He joins Stephen King in the Writer's Who Can't Even Direct Their Own Work Club. If movies so bad that they make you laugh out loud are your thing, try to find a copy of 1986's Maximum Overdrive. It makes The Spirit look like Citizen Kane.

Sin City 2 is coming out next year and, once again, Frank Miller is listed as co-director with Robert Rodriguez which mean Miller may manage to fool studio execs into thinking it'd be a good idea to let him direct the movie version of his classic 1983 graphic novel Ronin. That may actually manage to make Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (originally a parody of Ronin) look good.

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