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Visual mastery and messy, contorted premise

By Staff | Dec 29, 2008

Topple into an existential existence where an ex-cop, now undead (without the blood lusts) patrols his city. Describing his call to protect the metropolitan area, this spirit refers to the city as a lady in distress, one that will not shoo away his efforts to protect.

Frank Miller’s “The Spirit” captures the visual mastery of this netherworld of live action and computer generated backgrounds in a stagey, soliloquy filled tale that instantly revolves from an ultimate exercise into film noir with endless femme fatales into a messily executed and contorted premise (unless you happen to be a comic and/or graphic novel geek).

Miller has imagined Will Eisner’s classic hero as a man crucified by his serve and protect oath. Having paid the ultimate price, he rises as an entity that feels pain and pleasure stranded on the edge of a River Stix. Unlike a Superman from whom bullets bounce, they penetrate his shell of a body bestowed by the ability to heal at an accelerated pace.

If you came looking for a well-rounded story of depth and emotion, you’ve found the wrong flick. These cardboard caricatures often awkwardly speak choppily (and in clichés) depicting yet again a good versus evil conflict where those with a badge need assistance from a vigilante like apparition who does not have to read Miranda rights.  Displaying shrill, stark personifications of bad guys and gals, it struggles with redemption and vengeance mantras, as the performers often slide between tragedy and farce. A sequence involving a Nazi theme seems misplaced and outlandish having evolved out of nowhere.

Miller’s imagery merits comparison with his acclaimed “Sin City.” Perhaps, its flaw flows from too many stylistic meccas that clash and blend at the same time.

The director (himself a former comic artist) achieves the constant sense of a foreboding environment by placing the lens so that it’s nearly always looking upwards, which adorns normalcy and dominance touched by the severely melodramatic. Complimenting this touch, Miller maintains shots that are mostly at the waist or closer removing the dimension of depth. Thus, the director’s homage to its comic book roots flattens the actors and backgrounds such as you see when glaring at an artist’s panel.

Darting unsteadily and uncertainly from the hazards of shadowy noir, the production relishes red and white glitters, swims in tranquil yet sordid waters, and eerily contorts lighting whether over the shoulder or emanating from behind. Miller’s canvas finds near perfection only to sway onto other perspectives that either effortlessly absorb or hang riddled together.

Reminiscent of radio drama narratives, the entity that “beats up bad guys” thinks out loud throughout. Weaving a once innocent woman corrupted by the lure of money, sports cars and fancy clothes into a metropolis populated by pure cops chasing overwhelming nemeses toting automatic weaponry has diluted implications. Integrating notebooks, the Internet, palm pilots, and substance abuse allusions jolt an otherwise period effect.

The crime fighter’s skirt chasing seduction abilities encompass the beautiful to benign, allowing the introduction of an array of exaggerated felinity elucidating wily and sexy to noble and ambitious. Each symbolizes good (and bad) girls courting the edge of politically correct (or incorrect) facades and the allure of the ‘can’t have’ gentleman.

For all these introspective allusions, The Spirit battles The Octopus, a villain who utters, “let’s get some real killin’ goin’.” Since both hero and villain have already passed into an afterworld, the battering fisticuffs and blasting pellets of lead (accompanied by a troupe of slapstick buffoons) has little sustained action or grisly encounters.

Contact Tony at trutherford@graffitiwv.com