Blu-ray Review: The Spirit (2008)

On Blu-ray & DVD 4/14/09

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The Spirit

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If renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz made a comic book movie, it would probably look a lot like Frank Miller's The Spirit. However, Miller's fingerprints are all over the work which marks his first solo directorial effort, after having collaborated with filmmaker Robert Rodriguez on Sin City (note: Blu-ray review forthcoming) and Zack Snyder on 300. In fact, based on the earliest previews alone-- I initially thought that footage of The Spirit were really clips from the upcoming Sin City 2.

Featuring some of the most gorgeous and talented actresses currently working in the field of cinema today including Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Paz Vega, Sarah Paulson, and Jamie King-- graphic novel author and artist, the innovative Frank Miller thoroughly relishes in Comic Book Hall of Famer Will Eisner’s original 1930s creation that centered on an everyman hero with a signature red tie and black eye-mask who leaves a string of broken hearts in his wake as he fights for the justice of his true love—Central City.

In the luscious Blu-ray featurette “History Repeats”—just one of several excellent behind-the-scenes featurettes that also give you a history lesson on the world of comics (regardless of what you may have thought of the film), we take an invaluable and knowledgeable insider’s look at the origins at Eisner’s “Urban Zorro” styled 1938 newspaper comic that gave the young man unprecedented power while still in his twenties to ditch the idea of three or four panel imagery in lieu of seven full pages every week.

And with his decision not to make a Superman like ultra-strong superhero, he wanted to go with an everyman--possibly one that most male readers could identify with as Eisner’s protégé Frank Miller jokes that the veteran comic book innovator worked so hard, he seldom had the pleasure of female company so in order to get by, he sublimated by drawing an endless parade of extremely sexy, powerful women all magnetically drawn to the mysterious crime fighter.

As Miller even goes as far to explain—it wasn’t the drawing of the women themselves that provided the ultimate sensuous thrill but the inking of them-- paying loving care to ensuring that every curve was well defined and it’s a dedication that comes through even more today. This is exceptionally evident as Miller went to extensive lengths (far more than Rodriguez did in Sin City) to guarantee—along with his extremely gifted special effects team—that at all times, the women look unbelievable no matter how much chaos they cause or danger from which they flee. Or to put it another way-- they’re a walking and talking version of a Vogue Magazine layout or Vanity Fair spread shot by Liebovitz as Miller went so far as to film a scene featuring Eva Mendes underwater without any water to ensure the end result is spectacular.

But far more than fetishistic in the pre-James Bond comics that may very well have been (although I'm unfamiliar with the source material)-- thankfully Miller rewrote female characters to make them much richer. In doing so he reworked Sarah Paulson’s Ellen Dolan as a surgeon who literally is the only one who knows the Spirit’s body so well that she can stitch him up whenever he’s injured and crafted a brand new, exceptionally bright and psychologically knowledgeable female rookie police officer (Stana Katic) to work alongside the hard-nosed Commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria). Likewise, he designed a great role as the easily bored but bright Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) to be the brainy sidekick to Samuel L. Jackson’s evil Dr. Octopus.

Yet still-- more than 70 years later in Frank Miller's gorgeous feat of artistry in tackling Will Eisner’s work from a purely visual standpoint, ultimately it is the women in the world of The Spirit that hold our attention the most. Sadly, poor Gabriel Macht who takes on the titular role of a former police officer who returns from certain death to fight for justice is a clinically cool, less-than-interesting and underwritten lead who manages to deliver his great Raymond Chandler like film noir dialogue, even though he’s the least interesting one in the lot.

Of course, this isn’t saying much since—aside from Lauria’s Commissioner, Jackson’s deranged Octopus (who goes from western villain to Nazi in a few unintentionally humorous scenes that just don’t work) and Louis Lombardi’s dozens of identically genetically engineered dim-bulb henchmen—Macht is one of the only men in a world filled with women and feline cats.

However, it isn’t just Macht who suffers but also some of the strongest female characters (i.e. Sand Saref, the police officer, Ellen Dolan, Silken Floss) when a few too many supporting players are introduced as merely distraction causing eye-candy including Jamie King’s Angel of Death Lorelai and Paz Vega’s bizarre Plaster of Paris. And soon, it feels like it’s a circus of gorgeous women suffering from the Joel Schumacher era Batman problem of trying to juggle far too many characters in what becomes a disarmingly beautiful but nonsensical circus.

While undoubtedly, one of the major problems in the work involves its structure as a few surprises about the Spirit’s origin. Namely, new converts to the mythology of The Spirit want to know why he’s indestructible as well as how everyone else still assumes he’s dead save for one individual would’ve probably paid off in a far more emotionally satisfying way had they been revealed a bit earlier or more time had been spent fully fleshing out the tale of the man formerly known as Denny Colt who shortly into the film realizes that his childhood sweetheart turned international jewel robber, Sand Saref (Eva Mendes) is back in town and accused of murder.

Although he stayed extremely true to the heart of the original comic, Miller—who is responsible for ushering in the newer vision of a darker Batman that Tim Burton introduced Generation X to two decades back-- decided he wanted to make the comic more violent and raw than Eisner had back in the day.

While initially Miller walked away from the prospect of helming a big-screen adaptation of the work—the rights of which were acquired by Michael E. Uslan in 1992 (following his successful production of Burton’s Batman)-- finally he changed his mind, deciding that he couldn't bear to “let anyone else touch it,” as the production notes reveal. Thus, in what the producers called “a coup” in bringing aboard the man “who was Will’s protégé, peer, friend and battler partner,” as executive producer Deborah Del Prete of OddLot noted, it honoring Uslan’s promise to Eisner in which—as Uslan recalls-- he “swore to Will that nobody would touch The Spirit-- not a company, not a person -- unless they were willing to respect the property and do it the right way.”

And while the intent and passion is in every single frame as in another behind-the-scenes featurette, one of the CGI wizards note that “every shot was a special effect,” allowing Miller the freedom to use his “graphic notepad” to draw everything he wanted to film and show the actors and crew when they arrived on the set which consisted of an entirely green box with green screens and green props—more often than not, it just feels stale and uninviting.

Still, while it’s hard to feel invested in the over-crowded storyline and the fact that the second half is mind-numbingly slow as it grows stranger and stranger, Miller makes up for the narrative shortcomings with mind-blowing use of color including an emphasis on my favorite color combination of red, black, and white (or in my mind a joke to the comic's newspaper origins and the childhood joke of “what’s black and white and read all over?”).

In the end—a digital masterpiece of just how far you can go with the medium (yet one that also serves as a cautionary tale that plot is far more important than picture and perhaps another writer should have been brought on board)—the Blu-ray heightens the experience of The Spirit in what could be used as a visual moving painting you can simply watch and marvel over (while wanting to put the sound on mute).

Filled with audacious effects that can blend together different elements from different decades giving the film an indefinable sense of time period, and along with Matrix cinematographer Bill Pope play with light by “taking things away” using a “subtle variation that there is barely perceptible background” in some scenes—the sound and picture quality of Lionsgate’s first official Lionsgate Live title (that also features Molog), giving greater interactivity to Blu-ray fans by serving Blu-ray owners updateable and exclusive content “such as commentaries, games, ringtones, wallpapers, trailers, and much more via a series of on-screen notifications and widgets,” is phenomenal.

Moreover, it elevates the work despite its shortcomings much like Twentieth Century Fox’s Blu-ray of Max Payne did as well. Likewise it boasts a digital standard edition copy of the film that’s compatible with both Mac and PC for use on your portable devices. And another plus of The Spirit that I’m hoping will catch on with other studios in regards to Blu-ray releases is a completely customizable menu set-up that allows you to adjust its effects as well as the inclusion of bookmarks under the Special Features menu that makes it a bit easier to navigate than some other overly complicated presentations.

Additionally, it also contains an alternate storyboard ending complete with voice-overs by stars Samuel L. Jackson and Gabriel Macht as well as a greater in-depth look at working in an entirely digital “Green World” and more historical features about Miller and Eisner as well as commentary for the feature from Miller and Deborah Del Petre.

And while the film failed to match the importance of screenplay with the art--exceeding far beyond our wildest expectations with Miller’s extraordinary artwork and beautiful way he captures the women of Central City—at just 108 minutes, it’s much easier to digest than the bloated, extreme, misanthropic and even chillier Watchmen, made by his 300 co-director Zack Snyder.