Monday, May 4, 2009

The Unfathomable Badness of The Spirit

The Spirit is nothing less than a blight on my very soul that cannot be removed or in any way repaired or improved. I have never before walked out of a movie knowing with absolute certainty that I had just stared directly into the death of cinema. But there I was for two embarrassing hours feeling like Dave in 2001: a Space Odyssey as he rides into the black hole: seeing things so terrible they make your mind snap and hearing a chorus of wails and screams – the sound of the human spirit itself being irreparably crushed. The trek to my car afterward was a long, cold, dark journey of the soul as I tried not to shake and sob so hard as I realized what I had just been through. And then I began to seethe.

And then I got really, really pissed off.

Part of me is convinced that there simply are no words for this movie. I could write a book and illustrate it with hundreds and hundreds of frames from the movie and you still wouldn't understand if you hadn't seen it. The Spirit is a place where sight and sound converge in a way that no one has ever experienced before and, hopefully, never will again. Nothing in the history of motion pictures, dating all the way back to nickelodeons in the 1880s, has ever been so uniquely horrible. Trying to describe the experience of The Spirit in words is like trying to explain the new color you just invented to someone who has never seen it. Good luck, pal.

Ed Wood is no longer the punchline of bad movie jokes. Frank Miller has stolen the throne in the kingdom of cinematic shittiness and he will reign in perpetuity. Not even the worst of Wood's output – Glen or Glenda, Plan 9 from Outer Space, or even those weird softcore horror pornos from the 70's – is anywhere near as inept as The Spirit. It is a rare thing indeed to be be able to say you've witnessed the birth and implosion of a career in the span of but one movie, but Frank Miller has given us all the ability to see this phenomenon which henceforth will be known as The Miller Effect.

Now I know what some of you are saying right now. “This is Frank Miller's second movie! Sin City was first!” Yeah, well, fuck you because you are wrong. While Miller was graced with a co-director credit for Sin City, he had zilch to do with directing it. He was a consultant, there only to verify that the visuals of the film reflected the style of his comic book. Robert Rodriguez is just a huge geek who got a hard-on from the thought of people thinking he actually shared the lens with a comic legend like Frank Miller. We can, then, blame Rodriguez for unleashing this scourge upon us because it sure didn't take long for that credit to go to Frank's head and make him think of himself as an auteur. What's weird is that Miller didn't bother adapting one of his own books, choosing instead to dredge up a largely forgotten about character from the Golden Age of Comic Books back in the fucking forties, a detective from a cheerily colorful universe of Dick Tracy-ish crime bustin'. The Spirit comic is the exact tonal opposite of Miller's hopelessly self-aware, self-obsessed, self-aggrandizing hard boiled noir garbage. What's the deal, Frank? Did you know how clueless you were and figured you should just ruin someone else's beloved stories rather than unleashing yourself on yourself? Or did you think you could apply that faux-gritty, Rorschach blot-looking style of yours to anything and give it The Miller Touch? Did you trick yourself into thinking you were actually elevating The Spirit by completely altering it all the way down to the very DNA level?

Whatever it was you were thinking, if it wasn't “Hey I bet I can totally fuck up and forever shame myself”, you were hopelessly wrong. Because you did just that: you forever branded yourself with the deepest shame by producing an unprecedented turd. I think it no mere coincidence that distributor Lionsgate saw stocks take a free-fall a week after The Spirit hit the cinemas.

The Spirit is pretty much a self-reviewing film with the way it's opening credits start over a flat-line heart monitor. It's dead on arrival, alright. Up in his pretentiously stylized belfry, The Spirit, clad in fashionable boxer shorts and Zorro mask, gets a phone call informing him of something big going down down by the river involving the mysterious Octopus, a hard-to-catch criminal. It is here that the movie commits a fatal flaw of bad moviemaking: referencing better movies. The Spirit's answer to the phone call is simply “I'm on my way”, the catch phrase and movie tagline of DICK TRACY, which was made into a masterful film by Warren Beatty back in 1990. When I saw The Spirit in theaters and heard that line, I considered leaving and stopping to snatch up Beatty's film from the video store along the way. I want to do that now! Bad move, Frank.

Throwing on his all-black suit and bright red low-rez CGI tie and looking NOTHING LIKE THE COMIC BOOK COUNTERPART, The Spirit goes jumping from rooftop to rooftop and running all over and climbing shit and WHY DON'T YOU GET A CAR?! And at what point did you step in a puddle of radioactive semen?

God, these visual effects make no sense AND they suck. This shit looked hokey in Sin City, but it looks downright amateurish in The Spirit. There's a laughable bit here where Spirit runs along some power lines, which would have been cool oif he wasn't clearly a CGI silhouette. It looks like one of those Office 97 clip art men being pushed across the screen. The animation is so stiff it's barely animation at all.

And to make it all ever worse, Spirit starts doing this cheap Max Payne knock-off “noir” voice over with needlessly complex and obtuse language that means nothing. And since alleged “Actor” Gabriel Macht insists on half-whispering, it's hard to decipher some of it, too. God, two minutes in and I already hate this movie! And oh God, this Macht guy. Horrible. I will try so very hard to find words to capture this performance on the page, but forgive me if the task turns out to be to herculean for anyone short of Yahweh himself. Anyway, after doing all kinds of acrobatic bullshit, Spirit realizes “Oh shit, I don't have time for this!” (direct quote) and decides to go save some screaming woman from danger. He does so...I think (the whole thing is shown as silhouettes on a wall, but it's fucking night time, so how are we supposed to make this shit out?!)... and in the process gets a knife stuck in him. No worries, he casually pulls it out and then stares blankly like a mindless tool as he tries, and fails, to think of some way to explain this to the baffled woman. And then he distracts her by tossing the knife (Ooh, shiny! Women can't resist shiny!!!) and runs.

Down by the river, informant Dusty is surprised when a nubile woman, the poorly named Sand Serif (Eva Mendez), rises out of the water and director Frank Miller magically transports him from dry land to the middle of the water in just one ham-handed edit. Gun shots ring out just as Spirit and Leibowitz, a cop who's car he commandeered, arrive on the scene. As Dusty tell his tale in that wheezy “I'm a-dyin'” way, a flashback reveals that Sand is innocent and a mystery shooter took out Dusty. Sand dives to the bottom as said shooter keeps gunning for her. She arrives on bottom to retrieve a pair of treasure chests from her partner, and winds up with only one of the chests as she makes her escape. The mystery shooter takes the other. When they reach the surface, Sand's partner says that they're dealing with the Octopus here.

Oh, alright. This could be interesting. Fans of the comic book know that The Octopus was never shown except for his gloved hands, so that means that Frank Miller could give the character pretty much any look he wanted. Wonder what he came up with.

A drag queen. Of course. You fucking moron. It's like Frank had just seen Pink Flamingos and said “Hey, that Divine character looks real menacing and evil. Let's go with that!”. I apologize to Divine for tying her to something this bad. She was so much more talented than anyone we're gonna see in this turd.

Anyway, upon reaching the surface, The Octopus (poor, poor Samuel L. Jackson) spots the Spirit and initiates what is, without question, the single worst fight scene I have ever seen. It's a drag queen and a guy in a Zorro get-up reaching into hammerspace - that other plane of existence that exists just off-screen in cartoons, where the characters can reach to grab giant hammers and other objects – and bringing back random items such as severed heads, kitchen sinks, and at one point a seven-foot long pipe wrench, with which to bash each other as they make lame puns. It's an opus of jaw-dropping badness. The humor is so shallow that if it was a puddle you could stand in it and not get your feet wet. You cannot grasp the awfulness of this scene by merely reading about it. My dreams are haunted by Sam Jackson hitting me with a commode and bellowing “Come on! TOILETS ARE FUNNYYYYYY!” This is what most movies would call a “gag take”, the cast just fucking around with some props to amuse themselves while the lighting guy fiddles around or what have you. In The Spirit, that's good enough to make the final cut.

Fuck it, I need alcohol to get through this one. Some might find it uncouth to drink a Sam Adams at 4 AM. I deem it necessary. They wind up stumbling and mumbling like drunks anyway (“You talkin' ca-razyyyyyyyy talk, Octopus!”) so I can say it all ties in together.

Spirit collapses from his injuries and wakes up in the arms of Dr. Helen (someone or other), the lovely and lonely woman who loves him. She begs him to go to the hospital but he's the Goddamn Batman-er, I mean he's the Spirit, and he has bad guys to beat up. And yes, that is how he describes his job. “I beat up bad guys”. Woo hoo, so scary. Our old pal Dusty finally dies, and in doing so reveals a locket hidden in his hand. Spirit takes it, prompting an angry speech from Police Chief I Can't Believe It's Not Bob Hoskins (Not Bob Hoskins), who is also afflicted with the Max Payne syndrome and talks like a character out of His Girl Friday for no good reason.

Elsewhere, Octopus heads for his lair with one of his goons in tow and now is as good a time as any to discuss said goons. Octopus has an army of clones who work for him as henchmen, all named things like Ethos and Pathos and Logos, etc. They are all fucking retards and incredibly annoying. Imagine an even dumber George “The Animal” Steele with a lisp and a “follow you like a puppy” complex and you basically have these guys. They make me want to suicide so badly. Thankfully, Octopus shoots the one in this scene, but there's plenty more left. This is also a good time to discuss a rather bizarre running gag in the film: the Octopus' obsession with eggs. Half of this guy's dialogue is related to eggs for never-explained reasons. He just keeps bring them up, like when Pathos says he'll go to the hospital for his broken arms and Octopus says “Everyone would know that an evil genius like me couldn't afford medical insurance for employees. That's egg on my face. I don'!...ON MY FACE!” Every other scene has this shit going on. I can only assume Frank Miller saw Funny Games and thought the whole egg theme was just brilliant.

Spirit looks inside the locket he took, and which Dusty grabbed from Sand's neck earlier on, and sees pictures of Sand and himself from when they were kids. Flashback time~! A young Spirit, real name Denny Colt, has pawned his bike to buy the locket for Sand, his one and only beloved, but just before he gives it to her she spots some serious bling in a passing car and, being a woman in a Frank Miller product, she's instantly infatuated with SHINY! OOH, SHINY!!! SHINYSHINYSHINY! Ya know, like real women are, all obsessed with material things and crushing boyhood dreams. Christ, Frank... The DVD chapter is even called “Something Shiny”. Of course, I have to wonder why some rich woman drove through a low-class neighborhood hanging her gloved and diamond-bedecked hand out the car window. Other than to give Frank Miller an excuse to be a piece of shit.

Young Denny offers Sand the less-shiny locket he bought her and while she excepts it, she makes sure to make Denny understand that this doesn't make her his girl. Yes, I think we can all see why Denny loves her. It's so...obvious?

This...this is what defines my entire existence.

The two do eventually kiss and all that cutesy kid shit, but then things go wrong in a sequence that I will never understand. Denny's washed-up boxer uncle Pete gets into some kid of trouble with a mugger and Sand's dad, a beat cop, steps in to help but accidentally gets shot in the process. Dumb old Pete thinks it was his fault and blows his own brains out on the spot. Sand and Denny show up and Sand gets mad about Pete and tells a TV news crew that she hates cops and then she and Denny wander into an alley and she starts complaining about wanting money and jewels and dresses and...way to care about your dad dying, bitch. Jesus Christ, the depth of Frank Miller's woman hate is unfathomable. And it's indecipherable. I mean really, she's mad that Pete died and she hates her cop dad? What the fuck does that even...AHHHHH! And then she wanders off into the night and Denny never saw her again.

Back in the present, in his secret underground sewer dojo (???) Octopus has a meeting with the Thos' and his henchwoman Silken Floss, played by the incomparable Scarlett Johansson. Incomparably terrible, that is. She makes Gabriel Macht look like fucking De Niro by comparison at every turn. Again, here's a performance you have to see and hear to understand fully. Her woodenness, lack of effort and obvious contempt for the material she is reading are so incredible. Did Frank Miller even bother directing her at all, I wonder? She seems like she's been left on her own to do whatever and she just can't think of anything to do. Not that I have time to ponder that right now, because the scene we're in is another one like the fight scene – it makes no. Fucking. Sense. Octopus is dressed like a samurai in this dojo of his and when he opens his treasure chest he finds Jason's Golden Fleece. This is bad because he actually wanted the contents of the other treasure chest: The Blood of Heracles. How two mythical objects like this came to exist and then found their way to the bottom of a muddy river in Central City, USA, is never explained. It just makes no sense. Somehow or other, the Blood of Heracles is supposed to give anyone who drinks it (ewwww) God-like powers, and that would help Octopus conquer the world.

But since he has the Golden Fleece instead, he knows Sand Serif must have the blood. Enraged by this turn of events, Octopus turns into a cartoon and kills the Thos'.

I loudly shouted “WHY!?” in the theater when this happened. No one had an answer. And then Silken and Octopus discuss the situation as the background morphs into a cliché Japanese “Rising Sun” image. What sense does that make? I don't get it. This God. If it's on youtube...just watch it.

Elsewhere, Sand Serif has a meeting with the art...related person...who was supposed to find her the Golden Fleece. Or, as Sand calls it, “The shiny thing to end all shiny things”. Also, she randomly photocopies her own ass for no reason. Except so she can ogle it, because I guess she's a secret narcissistic lesbian or something. You know, like all women are. Anyway, she knows the art dealer/stealer guy sold her out to Octopus and takes all his money or something and then gives the options to either kill himself or see his life ruined when Sand sends photos of him getting close with a teenage girl to the news. He takes the first choice. Wow, harsh.

Over at the hospital, Spirit is getting checked out by Dr. Helen, who tells him he needs some bed rest. Spirit tells her she's the one who needs bed rest because she looks like a dog. Mind you, she looks perfectly fine, but she's a woman in Miller-dom, so she can be insulted at will. Of course, Helen is so charmed by the way Spirit treats her like dirt that she gives in completely to his sexual advances, even begging for them. But then Not Bob Hoskins and his cutey rookie bust in to remind Helen that she “looks like Hell”. Mind you, Not Bob Hoskins is Helen's dad. And he very angrily told her she looks like Hell. Lovely. And to cap off Helen's woe, Spirit can't help but hit on Officer Morgenstern, the rookie who's tagging along.

I...Wow. Just wow. The misogyny is just overpowering. The two-timing, skirt-chasing piece of shit is our hero and the hard-working doctor woman is a dog who looks like Hell and gets crapped on by every man she meets. Whatcha trying to say, Frank?

As Spirit, Morgenstern, and Not Bob Hoskins walk down the street, Spirit nonchalantly stops a mugger, delivers an impromptu TV PSA about dental hygiene, and hits on a news anchorwoman all in under a minute. Whatever. The point of this scene seems to be just to say “Sand Serif” a lot as the three discuss her returning to Central City, which apparently is like a crime or something. I guess the Central City Anti-Tourism Board stepped in when they saw money show up in the toll booth for the first time in fifteen years. Turns out that Sand sent the art dealer's money to the police force as an “anonymous” donation, but they tracked it to his office and found his corpse. And the tell-tale ass photocopy. I can at least say that this scene doesn't suck, but it is boring. The only really good thing here is that the actress playing Morgenstern is both cute and plucky and she's actually entertaining to watch. And she gets to be intelligent, too!

You know, I'm starting to question the significance of the Octopus to this movie. Our next scene is with him and, again, it's just plain damn silly and does nothing to establish his villainy. He's in a lab looking at a fucked-up Thos clone that's just a foot with a head (?) while Silken Floss complains of falling profits from their drug dealing or something else that doesn't matter anyway. This scene is pointless.

Spirit finds Sand in a hotel and tries to arrest her but instead they wind up in one of those “masked man trying to let on his secret identity” deals as Spirit tries to make Sand realize he's Denny, but she just does the old “He's dead! You're dead!” thing and accidentally shoves Spirit right out a window. What a lightweight wuss he must be. Luckily, his cape catches on a gargoyle on the way down so he can hang there and be insulted by none-too-impressed pedestrians down below. Oh yeah, make your hero out as a tool and someone the people hate. This is like when Jimmy's name gets booed at Video Armageddon in The Wizard. Why would you do that? Anyway, since his cape can't hold – and since a glass elevator of women who need to be hit on is going by – Spirit resorts to using his belt as a lasso to swing himself to safety. Too bad his pants fall down and reveal his boxers.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, he takes a cell phone call from Morgenstern, who tells him one of Octopus' goons was found dead and covered in industrial salt. And after getting to safety, he starts narrating out loud like a crazy person on a subway car as he tells the Octopus he's coming for him. You talkin' ca-razyyyyy talk, Spirit. As he heads off to an industrial salt plant Spirit dispatches of some Thos' and then runs into Silken. And being a womanizing asshole, he immediately gets all kissey-kissey and gets an injection of knockout juice for his stupidity.

And now, Ladies and Gentleman, Boys and Girls, Children of All Ages. The. Worst. Scene. Evarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!!!!!!!!!!! Spirit wakes up tied to a chair and is as bewildered as the rest of us when Octopus walks in...

Dressed as a Nazi. This is where I again outright shouted “WHYYYYYYYY?!” And no one had an answer. And again, this Octopus scene is totally worthless, as his grand speech about death is interrupted by a phone call (record-scratch on the soundtrack and everything). Even Spirit can't tolerate this scene, “Man I am getting old just listening to you”. The sheer buffoonery of the Octopus is God damn stupid! Anyway, Spirit manages to get Octopus to get to the point, which is explaining why the two of them are so invulnerable. Flashback to Officer Denny Colt's death, gunned down with jizz bullets in the grand Frank Miller tradition, after which Octopus used his body as the test subject for an immortality serum. It worked, and Denny rose from his grave days later reborn as unstoppable crime fighter The Spirit. And Not Bob Hoskins is shown to be fully aware of who and what Spirit is, but that really doesn't matter much to the plot so I wonder why they bother with it. Octopus shot himself up too, and here we are. And now Octopus wants the Blood so he can do the God thing...yadda yadda. And then the scene goes from stupid to despicable when Octopus feeds an adorable kitten a botched batch of serum just so they can watch the creature melt and run down a drain. For the first time, Spirit actually wins me over as he vows to avenge the cat.

Spirit gets his chance quickly as Octopus' Parisian belly-dancing henchwoman Plaster, of Paris (Paz Vega) frees him from his bindings after...what else...remembering the time they fucked. Spirit gives Octopus a whoopin' and then he and Plaster head topside where they kiss all random-like until Plaster runs a sword through Spirit's gut and leaves him to die as she dances right on out of the movie. Yeah, that character was necessary. Spirit stumbles down to the docks and falls into the river, where he finally embraces Angel of Death Lorelei, a specter who's been haunting him at every near-death experience in the movie but who's role is so limited (she just says “You're so close” or “You're almost mine” and nothing else) she's hardly worth mentioning. I don't even care who played her and you can't tell since the wonky effects obstruct the view of her face. As he dies, Spirit sees ol' Sand flash before his eyes and he decides to keep on living for Christ knows what reason (she's a whore!), much to the chagrin of Lorelei. This is quite literally where the movie dies, as indicated by the flatline:

After collapsing on the beach, Spirit wakes up in Helen's hospital and jumps out of bed after being clinically dead for three hours. His first thought? He wants a new tie. Secondly, he wants the Octopus dead. Elsewhere, Sand and Silken meet up to exchange treasures (scene underscored with raunchy softcore porno music because dey is pretee gurlz and Frank like pretee gurlz). And of course, the women have to act dumb as they talk about how fabulous they look and how fun it is to be naughty with the guns and whatnot. Ugh. Not Bob Hoskins and Morgenstern are spying on the deal, Morgenstern armed with the most recockulous cannon I've ever seen. Things go awry during the exchange as the Thos clone on hand starts shooting and Octopus pops out of Silken's truck. But then, oho, The Spirit shows up...and gets gunned down. The coppers rush in guns a-blazin' and airships a-flyin'. This bit is just the worst kind of comedy because it makes everyone look so god damn ridiculous. Octopus and the Thos' whip out their guns and just start waving them around and firing into the air at the choppahs and they look so silly doing so. Like spastics.

Morgenstern puts that cannon to good use finally and blows the Octopus up something good, even if it only takes one of his arms off. Not Bob Hoskins steps in to finish the job with several bullets to the head, but Octopus just bends over and shakes them out. And then he goes to drink the blood, but spends too long howling “YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!” into the heavens, allowing Sand time enough to shoot the vase and spill the blood. Spirit, who was wearing a kevlar vest it turns out, runs up and shoves a grenade into Octopus' gut, bellowing “Let's Die!”, which is the best bad hero phrase this side of “The Good Guys Always Win, Even in the Eighties”. Sand has other ideas, though, as she covers herself and Spirit with the Golden Fleece (why is a fleece that big? Was it actually the Golden Comforter?), and they survive the blast. Spirit returns Sand's locket (aw) and the kiss (aww) right in front of Helen (oh). Spirit and Sand say their goodbyes and then Spirit has the audacity to go over to Helen and tell her he loves her and she just accepts it, I guess. Elsewhere, Silken finds Octopus' finger crawling across the ground and declares she's starting over! Finally (finally) the movie ends with Spirit vowing to always protect his city because he's Spirit.

Thank God that's over. This movie is SHIT. It's unadulterated, putrid, festering SHIT. The Spirit is stupid, unfunny, undramatic, ugly-ass looking, sad-sack ass directed, barely-acted shit. Everything is wrong with this movie. It can't decide if it's serious or satire, but either way it is definitely malicious towards both Spirit-creator Will Eisner and the movie-going public. Every frame of this movie reeks with contempt for anyone who would watch it and condescension towards anyone who would like it. This movie is aimed at the lowest common denominator, the people too dense to know the movie they like is openly mocking them for doing so. It's quite clear that Frank Miller's game plan here was “Eh, I'll just do whatthefuckever because all the idiots out there will buy it for my name and suck my cock 'cuz I Am a Geen-Yussss!”. Yeah, well we all saw past the bullshit, Frank. The Spirit bombed like Nagasaki and made Miller look like the joke he is. The reviews were universally savaging and audiences were pathetically small (less than twenty people per screening on average, by my math). Were it not for the record-setting disaster of Delgo around the same time, The Spirit would have gone down as the new slang word for Box Office failure.

Plain and simple, this movie does not deserve anyone's money. It is to my eternal shame and embarrassment that I not only saw it twice but actually paid for the dishonor both times. And when I count the hours I have spent viewing it, writing about it, and thinking about it, I see that my life is almost a day shorter and that makes me sad.

In closing, there are but four words to sum up The Spirit:

Frank Miller: Epic Fail.


The Cheap-Arse Film Critic said...

Now, y'see, I get THE POINT of this movie. Miller and Eisner were friends, and they always used to joke around about what Sin City would have been like if Will had reated it, and what The Spirit would have been like if Frank had been behind it, and this movie if Frank paying respect to his friend by taking those conversations and making them a reality.

I get that.

But still, this really doesn't look like a good mvie. It looks to be exactly what's been wrong with Miller's work for years now, so totally over-the-top that you feel like he's makingfun of you.

With that said, I can't wait until I can find this cheap enough to review myself. Shouldn't be long now.

The Lam said...

I wrote a haiku about this shit-fest on my blog, but here it is again:

What a crock of shit;
Waste of talented actors;
Lion's Gate, you fail!

Fell asleep for half;
Frank Miller, stick with writing;
No more films for you!

Redunbeck said...

Cheap: I had never heard that story before. Huh. What a terrible idea these two men had. I mean, sure, The Spirit was a flawed comic (the minstrel-show darkie sidekick was, erm, ill advised) but it was made so much worse in the process of Millerizing it. I can see Miller being blind to how bad an idea it was, but Eisner still should've known better. No one should think it a good idea to let Frank Miller near their work.

But yes, even with the tribute idea in mind it is still a terrible film because it has all the hallmarks of Millerdom: it makes no sense, it's hammy, and it has great contempt for its audience. I look forward to your take on it in the future!

Lam: Perfect summation of the film with your haiku! Love it!