Title: The Spirit
Director: Michael Schultz
Writer: Steven E. de Souza (created by Will Eisner)
Distributed By: Warner Bros.
Starring: Sam J. Jones, Nana Visitor, Bumper Robinson, Garry Walberg, and Laura Robinson
Release Date: 1987
Denny Colt (Sam J. Jones) is an idealistic detective working on a new case. After his friend Sevrin (Philip Baker Hall) gets murdered after writing a book on forgery, Colt suspects that the museum’s curator Simon Teasdale (Daniel Davis) is behind it all. But things take a turn for the worse when Colt gets shot and left for dead. After everyone believes Colt is dead, he lives a life in the Wildwood Cemetery and dons a new life as The Spirit. With the help of Eubbie (Bumper Robinson) he takes down crime and gets hot on the forgery case. As long as he can resist the temptation of P’Gell (Laura Robinson) and his feelings for Ellen Dolan (Nana Visitor).
While 2008’s Frank Miller version may have been…different from Will Eisner’s version, believe it or not, there was another The Spirit film before it. The 1987 film is about an hour and made for TV, so technically it’s more like a TV pilot. Still, you have to take what you can get, especially since this is as close as you can get to the actual source.
In fact, this is very faithful to the comic books. While there are some differences, the tone is comedic and some of the scenes feel like they were taken right out of the comic book. Femme fatales, bop ’em sock ’em action, mysteries, and everything else you remember from Will Eisner’s comic book is there.
While the acting might be TV acting (which is much like TV meals), the actors all play their roles pretty damn close to the comic books. There’s Sam J. Jones (a.k.a. Flash! Aah-aaah!) as The Spirit. And as odd as it might sound, he fits the role both physique wise and acting wise. Yes, he’s not Marlon Brando, but Jones does know how to pull off comedic timing both acting wise and physically.
Movie Rule #432: No one will recognize you as long as you wear a domino mask.
Also, the supporting cast fits the bill fairly well. Nana Visitor got Ellen Dolan’s personality down to the tee, and Laura Robinson does a solid enough job as P’Gell. And yes, they do have Ebony White. Or I should say Eubie (played by Bumper Robinson). This was a role different from the original comics. Instead, he’s a kid who’s always trying to make a shady hustle. Which is I guess two steps forward and one step back. But at the end of the day, he’s a good kid and a valuable aid to The Spirit.
The strongest part about it was actually the action, which totally gets the comic book part down. It’s a good mix of serious action and slapstick. Mixing it with everything from fist fights to even a sword fight.
Before you think this has the complete quality of Will Eisner’s legacy, there are a few downfalls. For one thing, it’s a TV film. Meaning cheaper film quality, cheesier acting/lines, and a slack in production qualities (although it has a fairly healthy budget). In many ways, this is very much like an eighties cop show. From the cheesy (but catchy) synth scores, to the hokey one-liners.
Now we're talkin'.
Speaking of dialog, I found it ironic that the characters kept pointing out that The Spirit was basically The Lone Ranger. That would be like if everyone in Batman constantly pointed out that he was similar to Zorro (in fact, Eubbie complains that Robin never had to do homework).
Still, if you can forgive its cheese, you’ll find it to be a satisfying TV film (you an watch it here). It may not be perfect, but unless they do a remake of The Spirit, it’s the closest thing you’re going to get to the comic strips. And by the end of it, I couldn’t help but think of all the possibilities had it become a TV show.