The Spirit (2008)

the spirit

“My city, I can not deny her. My city screams.”

The Scoop: 2008 PG-13, directed by Frank Miller and starring Gabriel Macht, Jaime King and Samuel L. Jackson

Tagline: I’m gonna kill you all kinds of dead.

Summary Capsule: If Sin City and Hudson Hawk had a baby, but it was one of those inbred infants born near a nuclear waste dump, this might be that film.

Justin’s rating: Can someone — ANYONE — explain how superheroes keep their domino masks on?  Superglue?

Justin’s review: It’s written and helmed by comic book legend Frank Miller.  The action is good.  The humor is quirky.  The look is beautiful black-and-white-with-color-splash.  There are plenty of good-looking actors.  So… what went wrong with The Spirit?  And more importantly, did it deserve such sundry treatment?

The answer to the last question is “probably, but not as much.”  I think it’d be a Herculean task to argue that The Spirit is a good film, a great film, a film for the ages, a classic destined to be studied by all schoolchildren up through the 25th century.  Heck, it wasn’t even possible for me to convince my wife to watch it with me – combining a comic book character that she (and, for that matter, I) had never heard of with a Sin City vibe was a recipe for a raised eyebrow and a haughty laugh.  Even I knew it wasn’t going to be a solid movie; the most I hoped for is that I’d catch the same cult whiff that some claim to admire in this cinematic romp.

It’s been a while since a film reminded me of Hudson Hawk, but here we go – The Spirit has the same sort of insane blend of humor, bloated melodramatic speeches, film noir, cartoony action and bizarre character responses that either shoots way over the head of film audiences, or way under their feet.  Hudson Hawk was a punching bag for most of the ’90s, an easy example of Hollywood excess that threw too much money and talent into something that was fairly esoteric and post-modern.  If you got it, you got it, but most did not.  I find that audiences hate when they’re unable to figure out how to approach a movie, on what terms it wants to be taken – as a comedy, as a mystery, as an ironic parody of a long-lost genre.  Throw an audience too many vague signals, and there’s bound to be a mass exodus.

I never quite figured out how The Spirit wanted to be taken.  Although there’s an ardent fan base for this ancient comic book series, I’m not one of them, so any references to it or its particular idiom was bound to blow past me.  At times it carried itself very much like comic book frames come to life – with overwrought dialogue, outlandish action and posturing that would make any first year theater major blush.  And then it would shift into a bizarre fantasy world, where absurd humor (a hopping foot with a human head on it?  Samuel L. Jackson as both a samurai and a Nazi?) reared up and garbled nonsense for a while.  Somewhere between it all ran a hint of the superhero genre, but there’s far, far too much talking and film noir fashion show to keep us on track.

As a superhero film, The Spirit is all kinds of backwards.  The nature of Spirit’s Loony Tunes invincibility is a mystery to all, especially him.  The movie gradually, oh so gradually moves toward explaining his origin story by the end, which isn’t any more interesting than other superhero origin tales, but at least it’s a bit different.

The Spirit is a former cop who was shot and killed, but somehow came back to life with a powerful urge to wear a domino mask and talk as if he was a protagonist in a pulp detective novel.  He shrugs off damage like Bugs Bunny, has a way with the ladyfolk that suggests aerosol roofies, and possesses an inanimate object fetish with the city he protects, even though said city only exists as a figment of a green screen’s imagination. His major foe is The Octopus (Jackson), who continues a long-standing Jackson tradition of getting incredibly mad at specific things and sporting a look that even Elton John would say “Dude, tone it DOWN” to.  There’s some robbery, some mystery, and a few fights to be had, but the plot is wispy and shifting, like the mist on a highland morning.

I’m really at a loss as to why extensive stretches of this film are given over to lengthy dialogue/exposition scenes, scenes that could’ve been tightened up significantly.  They really just lose you, particularly toward the end when the whole film becomes some sort of alternative art theater that begins to make you wonder if you’re hallucinating.  That’s not to say that The Spirit is without redeeming qualities, as mentioned in the first paragraph, and I won’t feel too bad for it knowing that we have solid proof of what Frank Miller is like when he goes off his meds.  It’s historical, people!

So, when Jackson eventually dies, do you think the Academy Awards will show this picture for his “In Memorandum” spot?


  • Those are… quite the pair of eyelashes, Scarlett
  • Samuel L., you sure do like playing the crazy!
  • The fat clones are so dang cheery, you can’t help but love them
  • Lots of modern technology (cell phones, laptops) mixed with 30’s noir
  • Good golly, this is a talky film
  • It’s a foot with a tiny human head on it… okay…
  • The dig on Superman’s tagline: “You’ll believe a man CAN’T fly!”
  • There’s not just a bit of fourth wall breaking here
  • And then come the Nazis
  • And from Nazis, we head over to Greek gods.  Okay.  I’m trying to follow here.
  • Finally, a melted kitty.  Thank you and good night.
  • Repeat with me: THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE!
  • I like the Spirit butcher diagram they worked up (with domino mask and hat)

Groovy Quotes

The Spirit: My city, I can not deny her. My city screams. She is my mother. She is my lover, and I am her Spirit.

Sand Saref: Shut up and bleed!

The Spirit: I’m gonna kill you all kinds of dead.

The Spirit: Somebody get me a tie! I don’t care what kind, it sure as hell better be red!

The Spirit: What smells dental? [Looks around at Nazi decorations, and realizes he’s tied to a Dentist chair] Dental and Nazi. Great.

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