Friday, September 25, 2009

Comic Movie showdown: The Spirit, Punisher War Zone

I'm going to take a little detour and talk about two comic book movies I saw recently, those being The Spirit, based on the character created by comics legend Will Eisner, and The Punisher: War Zone, based on Marvel Comic's the Punisher...duh!

I am not very familiar with the Spirit strip. I followed the character in DC's recent revamp by Darwyn Cooke, but I have not read very much of Eisner's Original at all. The film, directed by Frank Miller, who I believe was friends with Eisner, marks his first solo directorial effort. The look of the film is very close to the look of Sin City (Frank Miller's comic series, and film he co-directed), lots of black, white and red going on. Sometimes characters will be shot in silhouette, sometimes a background will flash in an eye piercing graphic red. Visually, the movie is very pleasing. Miller's graphic sensibilities really shine here. There are also many great shots of the city that give it a beauty, and capture the feeling of a sprawling metropolis well. One of my favorite shots of the film is during The Spirit's closing monologue, of the side of an apartment building or tenement house, hundreds of windows and air conditioners. The camera lingers there for a minute, probably less, and it was just a great shot. The photography of "central city" in this film is another feather in Miller's cap.

The sad thing is, in my humble opinion, the fine visuals of this film are all the film has to offer really. The story is thin at best, the characters mostly forgettable and uninteresting. The dialogue is rambling, strange, and just kind of boring. The Octopus, the main villain, portrayed by Samuel L Jackson, has many monologues during the film...too many. They are all fairly boring, and the character continually talks about eggs, how he doesn't like egg on his face, rotten eggs, etc. I didn't understand the egg reference, or what they had to do with the Octopus, it was confusing, and not very funny. The Spirit himself is kind of bland too, and has one too many bits of dialogue talking about his city, personifying it, how it provides for him, how he loves it, and it him. It gets old.

The other focus of the film are all the femme fatales the Spirit has to tangle with. The ad campaign for the film focused heavily on the ladies, all portrayed by beautiful Hollywood actresses, like Scarlett Johansonn and Eva Mendes. They play their roles well, and they aren't as fetishized like the women in Sin City, but I still feel they should have been fleshed out a little more, considering how heavily the ad campaign focused on these characters. No one really stands out in this movie, the most memorable thing about this movie is the visuals, and considering Miller's background as a comic artist that makes perfect sense. Miller also tries to inject humor into the film, and lots of comic book type logic. The Spirit hops on telephone wires and runs across them on two feet like it was nothing, nimbly as a squirrel. I can appreciate this. While I like movies like Watchmen and the Dark Knight, they are very serious type movies. The don't have that comic bookish humor present in lots of classic comic books, that type of off the walls humor is almost frowned upon these days in comics, and I, for one, think that is a little sad. Miller's effort to inject humor into the overly serious comic movie genre is a definite failure, the Spirit being such a colossal flop. If anything check it out for the good visuals.

Punisher:War Zone is another critical and box office flop, but I think this is undeservedly so. Directed by Lexi Alexander, the Punisher War Zone pits the Punisher (played by Ray Stevenson) against his longtime villain Jigsaw (Portrayed by the Wire's great Dominic West). I have not seen the other Punisher films, but Stevenson LOOKS the part of the Punisher more than any other actor that was cast in the part. Stevenson looks very similar to the Punisher covers, and even how he was depicted in the Welcome Back Frank storyline. This movie has an extremely high body count, and the Punisher does most of the killin'. He uses all sorts of guns, knives, and his bare hands. He pushes a chair leg through a man's head, and even goes so far as to punch a hole through one thug's head. This movie is definitely campy, and has a bit of that comic book humor that is missing in many comic book movies made today. The two main villains are pretty hammy, and definitely seem like they are having fun playing these ridiculous characters.

The film looks great, all the sets are beautiful, all the on scene locations feel right. It's a very colorful film, each scene has a deliberate color palette. The Punisher's costume looks really authentic, like he could really go into battle and survive it. Stevenson has obviously had weapons training, he handles all of the weapons like an expert, and looks the part of the Punisher the whole movie through. The movie is stolen by Jigsaw and his brother and confederate in crime, Loony Bin Jim. They play the roles like true comic villains, over the top, flamboyant, and silly. The whole movie is pretty silly, a lot of the acting might not be considered the very best, and the writing can be less that brilliant, but the finished product is greater than the sum of it's parts. The action sequences were all excellent, the sets, props and weapons were great. This is an incredibly well made film, and strives with all it's might to stay true to the source material. This is a fun movie, and I think it should have been received more favorably than it was. I feel this film succeeds where The Spirit failed in bringing that comic book feeling to the screen.