Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: The Spirit
Every so often, there is a film of such superb and powerful cheese, its director never again returns to the medium. Such is its ludicrous level of perfection, that its maker never need return to the stage. Inevitably, these films are also such commercial failures that their exquisite mic drops make an encore impossible anyway. This is true of the pinnacles of the form: “Manos”: The Hands of Fate director Harold P. Warren never had much to say anyway. The Room‘s Tommy Wiseau only had that one story in him — indeed, he wrote it as a stage play before converting into a film script. And like them, legendary comic book writer and artist Frank Miller made one film as the sole credited director. And for better or worse, it is his definitive cinematic statement, The Spirit.
Not that he intended it to be this way, mind.
The plot concerns Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht), a policed detective shot dead and later revived by a notorious gangster known as The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson). Colt happened to be in the right place and became The Octopus’s guinea pig for an immortality serum the mob boss later uses on himself. The two spend years fighting each other before The Octopus discovers a way to end the stalemate: a vase containing the blood of the demigod Heracles. Unfortunately for him, notorious international jewel thief Sand Serif (Eva Mendes) returns to town in search of the Golden Fleece. Both objects turn out to be buried in the swamps near town and both happen to be diving for them when Colt arrives on the scene. After a swampland brawl with The Octopus, Colt is called in to investigate a murder Police Commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria) suspects was committed by Sand. It puts Colt on her trail and leads him down a trip down memory lane; the two were an item when they were teenagers. It also leads him to another confrontation with the Octopus and to meetings with sly assassin Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega) and Lorelei (Jaime King), the Angel of Death who feels slighted because Colt evaded her final embrace. But it all just sets the stage for a final battle between Colt and The Octopus for possession of the Fleece.
And if the plot sounds like a lot of disconnected ideas, that’s part of the charm. Approached by producer Michael Uslan at Spirit creator Will Eisner’s memorial service about making the film, Miller resolved to both honor the late comics legend’s work while making a movie his way. Of course, his way was something he picked up while working with Robert Rodriguez on Sin City.
Ever the innovator, the director of El Mariachi and Planet Terror used his love of green screens and digital cameras to create plate shots in which a team of animators could literally paint a Frank Miller world onto the screen. The effect, when you watch Sin City, is striking and thematically appropriate. Using Miller’s art from that series as a guide to filming, Rodriguez made three of Miller’s Sin City stories come to life with striking fidelity to the source. It was a genuine cinematic achievement and Miller was there every step of the way as Rodriguez considered him a co-director.
In resolving to make The Spirit, Miller chose to use the same process and, unlike Rodriguez, choose to use his own style for The Spirit instead of using the technique to bring Eisner’s world to the screen. Which is where so many of the troubles begin. While Spirit comic strips can be read with a certain tongue-in-cheek tweaking of film noir tropes, they are nowhere near the sort of hyper-real grotesquery Miller employs in his Sin City comic book stories. Even if Miller initially meant his series to be a wildly absurd parody of the noir conventions The Spirit strips tweak while seriously employing, by the release of the Sin City film, Miller’s worldview had merged with his creation. And that’s the world view he brings to The Spirit film as director. Also, by this point Miller’s career, his ability as a storyteller in the comic book medium was leaving him. The later Sin City stories lack the spark and clean narrative momentum of the earlier work. Instead, sprawling narratives hung upon Miller making references to his influential classic material. This is the Frank Miller who wrote The Spirit script.
Colt goes on long tangents to offer exposition to the audience. Characters consistently repeat themselves just to make sure you get the joke or to hammer home a point. Did you know Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) is the prettiest girl in the world? The Octopus’s cloned henchmen will definitely make sure you do. Also, a helpful copier will introduce the concept that Serif has the perfect ass. The world is bizarrely contemporary and stuck in Eisner’s 1940s reality all the while being painted with the high contrast tones of Miller’s Sin City and guest appearances from Lynn Varley’s color palette for 300.
Oh, and as it happens, The Octopus puts on a Nazi uniform at one point because there may be no better marker of a bad film than the image of a black Nazi.
Nonetheless, the film is an exhilarating experience from start to finish because it is the unleashed id of Frank Miller utilizing the work of Eisner to get across his maladjusted worldview. The repeated lines, the high contrast photography, The Octopus’s weird obsession with eggs reflect more the, um, spirit of the director than the intent of the source material. Some of it entertains from a morbid place as the film comes crashing down around itself and other parts offer a sort of satisfaction for those who watched Miller’s Sin City comic decline as he got lost in his own stories and themes. A digression about Robin the Boy Wonder comes straight from the mind of The Dark Knight Returns author to both remind you he made that and spin you around as he attempts to make a provocative statement that DC Comics character. Like so many first-time directors, he’s out to maximize the shock value and isn’t afraid to use his own reputation to do it. Despite ostensibly being Will Eisner’s The Spirit, the joy to be found here is how the dark tones of Frank Miller’s vision, and his frustrations as an artist, infests this other person’s creation. It’s hilarious funny, just in any of the ways Miller intends.
You may have noticed I have not singled out any performances here. Sadly, most of the cast is little more than dialogue delivery vectors for Miller with the actors either shouting to the rafters or at a complete loss for what to do — another failing of Miller as a filmmaker. One person who does appear to be at home in Miller’s world is Stana Katic as rookie police officer Morgenstern. She gamely repeats the phrase “Electra Complex” throughout an entire sequence and just watch how she dominates this scene, even with Lauria and Macht chewing scenery in the foreground:
While Miller’s vision is not the correct tone for The Spirit, it is still singular and strangely compelling. Following the film’s poor showing with critics and at the box office, Miller’s plans to make a film version of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century were scrapped and the producers responsible for his plans at Odd Lot Entertainment were fired. Like one of Miller’s own stories, his directing career went out in a blaze of hyperbolic glory. Well, at least the sort of glory those ready to watch a cheese-drenched auteur film like nothing before or since are prepared to recognize.
And yeah, I am aware Sin City precedes it and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For follows it.
The Spirit is available for rent at the usual streaming platforms or on Starz with a paid subscription. It is also available on Blu-ray and DVD.