Happy New Year! And here’s the frontrunner for the worst movie of 2009 to get us going. Will Eisner’s 1940s comic strip about the dead or possibly immortal crimebuster was as influential for its hardboiled writing and shadowy graphics as his old school friend Bob Kane’s "Batman". And the two characters have a lot in common, except that Eisner’s hero doesn’t go in for superhero gadgetry, and maybe the strip had a better sense of humour.
On the face of it Frank Miller would seem ideally placed to write and direct this belated movie version; his best-known books, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City take place in a similar urban noir netherworld, populated by larger than life villains and vixens. Miller’s sensibility is certainly more cynical and possibly more sleazy, but no one would suggest he doesn’t know comic books inside and out, and it’s safe to assume Eisner has been an important inspiration to him.
The trouble is, Miller is no filmmaker. That much becomes obvious very quickly. He received a co-director credit on Sin City, but regardless of what you thought of that (not my cup of poison) he was working in league with Robert Rodriguez, one of the most dynamic and fluid filmmakers on the planet, someone who thinks instinctively in terms of cranes and zooms and traveling shots. All of that is beyond Miller, who only knows about composition and costumes… the “look”.
Forget the classics, this is the sort of movie that should be shown to students of filmmaking to illustrate what a director does – and in this case, does not do. Inert, lifeless scenes stack up in an untidy pile, embroidered with reams of semi-parodic purple pulp narration and attractive actors caught in embarrassingly staged situations.
Like Sin City, the movie is an attempt to integrate live actors in a stylized expressionist semi-animated world. But this time the actors are as fake and artificial as their surroundings. They include Scarlett Johansson as luscious Silken Floss – right hand woman to bad guy the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson); Eva Mendes as luscious femme fatale Sand Saref; and Sarah Paulson as luscious doctor Ellen Dolan, who holds a candle for the Spirit.
The eye candy is okay with me and Miller treats Gabriel Macht’s eponymous detective the same way, as a walking fashion plate (ya gotta love his white soles). But he has no idea how to transform the soundstage into cinematic space, the drive the rhythm of a scene or put the actors at ease. Most of the staging wouldn’t look out of place in an Ed Wood movie. A scene in which Mendes photocopies her derriere to punch home a wisecrack about “a perfect ass” is typical of Miller’s constipated idea of sexy-cool. So much of this movie is like wading through sludge.
In another sequence, for no obvious reason Scarlett and Samuel L. are kitted out in Gestapo uniforms and forced to strut back and forth for five minutes while they explain how the Spirit acquired his apparent invulnerability. The fact that Miller knows this back story is ridiculous isn’t enough to make the scene funny or amusing. Instead, he manages to make both stars look amateurish.
I quite enjoyed Louis Lombardi, very cheerful as multiple dumb clones, but Miller’s indulgent misfire never gets going. This man should never be let loose with a megaphone again.
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