The Spirit presents Samuel L. Jackson as a flamboyant villain playing dress-up in scene after scene: as a Nazi, a bandito, a samurai, and an M60-wielding Russian mafioso shooting down police helicopters overhead. You’ve also got him doing his patented cold-blooded stare and his fire-and-brimstone bellowing, and he has the most memorable dialogue not because they’re so snappy but because they’re deliberately pitched at the seats in the mezzanine. The House Next Door‘s Keith Uhlich says that Jackson is going through his Joan Crawford phase, complete with bulging eyeballs and obsessively sticking to his actor tics. If that’s the case, then Jackson has hit a rock bottom with The Spirit that’s comparable only to Crawford’s appearance in Trog.
If I’m highlighting Jackson’s performance as the Octopus, grand mastermind of evil, perhaps it’s because he’s the only presence on screen that genuinely registers. He taunts and hectors the Spirit (Gabriel Macht) for the duration of the running time, riddling the indestructible hero with bullets, hurling him into a mud pit, smashing a toilet bowl over his head, all the while gleefully shouting out lines such as, “SPIRIT! We’re TWO OF A KIND, you and me!” Poor Macht is out of his league, sticking with a grim Clint Eastwood monotone and a befuddled charm that is supposed to win the hearts of every single woman he comes into contact with. “What is it with you and women?” Jackson sneers, but for the life of me I could barely tell any of the Spirit’s flames apart. They’re interchangeable buxom pin-up starlets, and their naïve personalities are defined by their breathless come-hither whispers to the Spirit.
As for the near-incomprehensible plot, it has something to do with a jewelry thief (Eva Mendes) who is an old flame from the Spirit’s childhood, an immortality potion that will transform the Octopus into a living God, and some briefcase that emits golden light, not unlike the McGuffin prop in Pulp Fiction. But does it really matter? What’s being pitched at the film’s mostly-teenage fanbase is writer-director Frank Miller’s adoration of women as sultry monuments of desire, mean streak nihilism, big guns, and portentous show-and-tell dialogue: “The city screams,” whispers the Spirit, and then we hear a literal scream—just one of many examples of spoon-feeding that happen constantly throughout the film.
The previous films based on Miller’s graphic novels, Sin City and 300, ran basically along the same lines, seeming like comic-book panels sprung to life. That’s not to say either film is particularly cinematic, since their images, from the sets to the actors, felt more like rotating woodcarvings painted in solid black, white, red, silver, and gold. But at least you could argue they were, in their one-dimensional way, coherent and active. The Spirit is positively inert by comparison, exemplified by its opening sequence where the hero and villain fight each other in a mud pit long past the point where we realize neither of them can be hurt or killed, causing the audience to wonder just what the hell we’re supposed to get out of this besides watching Jackson have a wolfishly good time coasting along still playing that guy with Bad Ass Motherfucker written on his wallet.