Sunday night was film night in Chez Tennant, and for my weekend treat I watched three films connected by the common link of comic book artist and storyteller Frank Miller. I have fond memories of Miller from his days on Daredevil but haven’t kept track of his four colour adventures since then, though I did catch all three of these films at the cinema when they first came out.
Sin City (2005)
Directed by Robert Rodriguez in cohorts with Miller, and based on a Miller comic, this is a pseudo noir assemblage of three interlocking tales, each packed with hard men and beautiful women. Marv (Mickey Rourke) is a no hoper who finds a cause when a prostitute who was kind to him is killed and he gets left to pick up the tab, blazing a trail of vengeance that takes him to the corrupt heart of Sin City. Dwight (Clive Owen) is a convicted killer on the run who stops off to help the hookers of Old Town fight off a takeover bid by the mob. Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is a detective who gives up his life to save a young girl from a paedophile killer, and finds that he has to do it all over again when she is grown up and he gets out of gaol. The stories are contrived, and don’t stand up to close scrutiny, while the over the top action and super heroics of the characters betray their comic book origins, and yet for all of that they touch on very human themes of love and betrayal, truth and justice. Each of the three protagonists is a tarnished hero of sorts, regardless of which side of the law they stand on, honest men fighting against a system in which corruption is enshrined and with the sense that their own sins were forced on them. My one misgiving about the film is that none of the lead protagonists is female. Women feature in these stories, and they’re hardly portrayed as submissive, and yet at the same time there’s an element of eye candy to their depiction, with flimsy costumes as the default fashion and, mostly, involvement in service industries that focus on male pleasure (prostitution, exotic dancing), albeit on their own terms, not as victims. The exceptions, such as ninja killer Miho (Devon Aoki) and parole officer Lucille (Carla Gugino), are pretty much two dimensional compared to their male counterparts, with Miho in particular nothing more than a killing machine, devoid of any hint of personality. Visually the film is a treat, shot almost entirely in black and white, with the occasional splash of colour for emphasis (the red of blood), each scene as carefully constructed as a Diane Arbus photograph. I loved it, and as an essay on the theme of how justice and legality are not necessarily the same thing it works splendidly.
Director Zack Snyder’s ode to homo-eroticism based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, and while I can’t comment on the novel it certainly plays fast and loose with many of the facts behind the events portrayed. The Spartans are depicted as a noble, freedom loving band of warriors, the way in which they dispose of the ‘unfit’ glossed over, while their possession of slaves and the way in which Greeks regarded all other races as barbarians don’t rate so much as a mention. Their concept of honour doesn’t stop Leonidas (Gerard Butler) murdering ambassadors or feigning surrender just to get a better shot at killing the Persian king. And, of course, the Persians are shown as a nation of slaves and degenerates, with Xerxes himself depicted as somebody who looks like he wandered out of an S&M club in downtown New York on a Saturday night. It’s a film that is rife with the whiff of xenophobia, and a political agenda to push (for Spartans, read the West, and for Persians whoever the current bogemyman happens to be). And yet, for all of that, the film catches me up whenever I watch it. In part that’s down to the almost painterly style of the telling, with a wonderful blend of colours and imagery in each and every shot, so that you can almost feel as if you are turning the pages of the graphic novel, with events coming to life on the page. And it’s also because, if you can overlook the spin, there is an exciting story here, one of the David versus Goliath school, and even if we have doubts about the moral stance of the underdog there’s the compulsion to root for him, simply because of his bravery (one often forgets that ‘bad’ men are brave too). The values espoused, such as freedom and honour, are still buzz words to us now, many centuries after Thermopylae, even if their meaning has been diluted and perverted, now as then. It’s a film that tugs at the heart strings, while the intellect is pleading unfairness and bias on numerous points of order. And if that doesn’t grab you, there are lots of beefy blokes strutting about in their pants.
The Spirit (2008)
Miller takes a turn in the director’s chair, for this film based on Will Eisner’s classic comic book hero of yesteryear. Denny Colt is a murdered cop, brought back to life and virtually indestructible, who fights evil on the streets of Central City as The Spirit, the name taken because he believes himself to be the spirit of the city. Comparative unknown Gabriel Macht plays Colt, unmemorably so, while Samuel L. Jackson acts as himself in the role of arch nemesis The Octopus, with plans to become immortal by stealing the Blood of Heracles. And, for added complication and the third point of the nemesis’ triangle, Denny’s teenage love from the streets is back in town, the jewel thief Sand Saref (Eva Mendes). There’s an attempt to capture the visual panache of Sin City with a predominantly black and white palette, and the use of colour for ‘shock’ effect, but visual panache is about the only thing the film has going for it. The characters are pretty much caricatures, with Jackson in particular horrendously over the top as The Octopus. While they don’t have sound effects of the KAPOW and KABOOM variety cluttering up the screen, the whole feel here is that of the old Batman TV series with Adam West, only without the tongue in cheek playfulness that kept that show so fresh – Octopus even has henchmen wearing t-shirts with their names on. Of course, Eisner predated the TV series, and so could be a common influence on both, but unfortunately I’m not in a position to say. The film feels derivative, straddling the gap between the seriousness of Sin City and the lighter template, but with the virtues of neither. It didn’t stir me, but neither did it make me laugh. All we’re left with is something that looks good but feels hollow, and on this evidence I think Miller should stick to writing comics, as directing films is not his forte.