Monday, August 27, 2012

Movie Monday: The Spirit

This week's Movie Monday selection is the live action adaptation of Will Eisner's classic comic book The Spirit!

No, not the Frank Miller-directed bomb from a few years ago; even I have my limits. Rather, I'm talking about the little-seen 1987 version done for ABC, starring none other than Flash Gordon himself, Sam Jones!

I watched The Spirit when it first aired, and then was confused as it seemingly completely disappeared from existence. My memory of it was hazy, but I didn't remember it being that bad. I occasionally thought about tracking it down one way or another, but for whatever reason I never did. Then, when I attended the Great Allentown Comic Con with my Ace Kilroy partner Dan O'Connor, I saw a bootleg copy of it for sale. I didn't buy it (the quality of those things is always pretty dodgy at best), but I did search it out online, watching it for only the second time in twenty-five years:
The Spirit opens strongly, with panels of Will Eisner's artwork as they fade to live action versions of the scenes. The music--which will be a consistently weak element throughout the movie--is screechy 80s guitar rock, a mystifying choice, but the visuals are great.

The first scene proper is of Denny Colt (Sam Jones) getting a call from his mentor, a man named Sevrin (the great Phillip Baker Hall, who ironically enough would have been a perfect Commissioner Dolan) who investigating a case of art forgery. When Colt arrives, he finds Sevrin's house ablaze, leading to the man dying in Colt's arms, with a single clue to the case--the name of a museum curator:
Colt pursues the investigation, which involves rich, respected members of the city. Commissioner Dolan (Garry Walberg) warns Colt to be careful who he offends, but Denny Colt only cares about truth and justice!

During these scenes we are also introduced to Dolan's daughter Ellen (a pre-Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Nana Visitor), a young grifter orphan named Eubie (Bumper Robinson, playing essentially the "Ebony" role), and the slinky P'Gell (Laura Robinson), a friend of Ellen's. Colt gets a tip about the case and meets his informant at the harbor, but it's all a set-up leading to Colt being shot to death and dumped in the water.

Somehow, Colt survives, and crawls his way to Wildwood Cemetery, where Eubie is conducting a "business deal" involving some bootleg Whitney Houston cassettes. The other kid is scared off, but Eubie sticks around, helping Colt recover. In time, it dawns on Colt that since he is believed dead, he now has the perfect chance to go after criminals without all that pesky law stuff getting in the way. He sets up his HQ inside a crypt and fights crime as The Spirit:
The crime/investigation scenes are fairly dull (with a cookie-cutter TV movie bad guy), but the interplay between Jones and Visitor is pretty good, if at times in the movie's attempt to capture Eisner's whimsical approach, they go a little broad. Case in point: this scene of The Spirit and Ellen trying to climb out an upper window, involving all manner of physical comedy:
Most of the movie is shot during the day (an odd choice), on sets that look like standard issue backlot. Occasionally the filmmakers (including director Michael Schultz, who just helmed an episode of another comic book series, Arrow) go for something moody and striking, like this scene of P'Gell watching as The Spirit is tortured by some thugs:
Ellen and P'Gell think The Spirit is a hunk (of course), and there's a number of scenes with Jones with his shirt off. At one point Ellen gets an unconscious Spirit into a cab, where she is tempted to remove his mask and see who he really is--but a reminder from her father (who is now secretly working with The Spirit) pops into her head admonishing her:
Finally, The Spirit stops a bomb (planted by P'Gell in the museum while it's full of innocent people, like Eubie)and finds Sevrin's killer. P'Gell manages to get away, which leads to The Spirit to promise they'll meet again.

The movie ends with The Spirit and Ellen walking arm and arm out of his crypt, launching the beginning of a beautiful friendship:
...The End!

Like Dr. Strange, The Spirit has completely disappeared from the unofficial corpus of comic book movies--many people don't even know it exists. It never aired again, and has never been released on VHS or DVD. Which is too bad, because it's really not that bad, merely inconsequential--it's hardly worth seeking out, but at the same time it's not a blight on the legendary work of Mr. Eisner. Jones is fine if generic as The Spirit, and Visitor channels Lucille Ball as Ellen, with a dash of Lois Lane thrown in. The rest of the cast is fairly unmemorable, the sets uninspiring, and as I said above the music is god-awful.

That said, the tone of The Spirit is so earnest and straightforward that it's hard to really dislike it--everyone here is in there swinging, and there's no reason to think if this movie/pilot had gone to series it wouldn't have gotten more interesting all around.

I guess any chance of this movie being officially released got buried along with the memory of Denny Colt when Frank Miller's 2008 adaptation bombed so massively; it's a shame that so many younger comics fans probably think of that when they hear the name "The Spirit" before they do the work of Mr. Eisner. Seeing this movie might be a nice bridge between the two.

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