(On DVD, July 2009) There are many ways to be disappointed by Frank Miller’s The Spirit. The most esoteric one is by comparison to Will Eisner’s classic comic strips (or even Dwayne Cooke’s wonderful revival): The off-beat medium-specific tone of the original is a tough assignment for adaptation at best, but it becomes a mishmash in Miller’s hands, who seems more interested in ripping off his own Sin City than to deliver a coherent film. But you don’t have to be familiar with Eisner’s form experiments to think that this is a poor film: The Spirit veers from high camp to pitch-dark noir without much grace, and not even an astonishing gallery of lovely actresses is enough to redeem the result. Samuel L. Jackson does well as a high-spirited villain, but it’s a shame that Gabriel Macht doesn’t have more to do as the square-jawed hero. Visually, it’s a Sin City sort-of-sequel, although the quality of the images is much higher than what comes out of the speakers: The dialogue is over-the-top to a degree that seems stiff and self-conscious rather than amusingly arch. For a mash-up of crime and superhero fiction, there aren’t that many set-pieces worth remembering and the only one that sticks in mind has no choice than to resort to full-blown Nazi imagery. Little of it makes sense, and so the biggest disappointment of The Spirit is to think of what a much better film it could have been in other hands.
(On VHS, September 2000) Considered without preconceptions, this is a standard crime film with some interesting moments. Disappointment set in as soon as we’re reminded that it’s “Directed by Quentin Tarantino” during the end credits. This isn’t the fantastic piece of cinema that could be expected from the wunderkind auteur of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. At best, it let itself be watched with interest despite its lengthy duration. At worst, it’s a regrettably boring adaptation of a lousy book. Few cinematic pyrotechnics, and the main event (a caper told from three perspectives) seems more gratuitous than organically useful. Robert de Niro’s character is nearly superfluous. Samuel L. Jackson is good, but routine, a description that might be applied to the film as a whole; unspectacular, but competent. Rather long, though.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, October 2018) I don’t often “catch movies on cable” (my tool of choice for mass movie consumption is the DVR), but when I happened to see Jackie Brown playing while I was doing other things around the living room, I left it on … and became increasingly mesmerized by the film. When I first saw it in 2000, it simply didn’t click for me: It felt dull and anticlimactic from Quentin Tarantino after the more explosive Pulp Fiction, and there wasn’t much in the film to remind us that this was from the same whiz-kid auteur. Nearly twenty years later, I’m far more sympathetic to the film: It’s a solid crime drama, well told in a more grounded way than what would be called the “Tarantino style”. Pam Grier is spectacular as the middle-aged protagonist of the story, using and manipulating three separate parties to get what she wants. Robert Forster is almost as remarkable as a grizzled bailsman, with good supporting performances from actors such as Robert de Niro (playing a second fiddle, refreshingly enough), Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson in his inimitable persona. Tarantino keeps things moving, keeps his own excesses to a minimum and the result still stands, twenty years later, as his most grown-up piece of cinema. As for myself, I’m far more receptive to older characters, to solid crime drama (now that those are far less prevalent now than in 1997) and to the idea of damaged character somehow trying to make the best out of what they’ve been given in life so far. Disregard my first take on the film—I’m much better now.