A slain cop is resurrected as a masked crime-fighter in “The Spirit,” but Frank Miller’s solo writing-directing debut plunges into a watery grave early on and spends roughly the next 100 minutes gasping for air. Pushing well past the point of self-parody, Miller has done Will Eisner’s pioneering comicstrip no favors by drenching it in the same self-consciously neo-noir monochrome put to much more compelling use in “Sin City.” Graphic-novel geeks will be enticed by the promise of sleek babes and equally eye-popping f/x, but general audiences will probably pass on this visually arresting but wholly disposable Miller-lite exercise.
If this summer’s “The Dark Knight” raised the bar for seriousness, ambition and dramatic realism in the comicbook-based superhero genre, “The Spirit” reps its antithesis: Relentlessly cartoonish and campy, it’s a work of pure digital artifice, feverishly committed to its own beautiful, hollow universe to the exclusion of any real narrative interest or engagement with its characters.
As such, it’s not clear exactly who the pic’s intended audience is. Devotees of Eisner’s original creation, who first popped up in Sunday newspapers around 1940, won’t warm to this ultra-stylized update, and fans of “Sin City” (which Miller adapted from his own comicbook series and co-helmed with Robert Rodriguez) will find it pretty weak sauce — a soft-boiled PG-13 trifle to whet their appetites for “Sin City 2” in 2010.
Initially, Miller’s screenplay seems to break with formula by dispensing with the origin story of its eponymous hero. As the pic opens, ex-cop Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht) has already been transformed via mysterious means into a vigilante with almost as many lives as the stray cats strewn throughout the pic. With his dark fedora, cape and eyemask, boldly accentuated by a blood-red necktie, the Spirit cuts an imposing figure on this black-and-white canvas; predictably, he’s something of a ladies’ man, but, as he discloses in voiceover, his one true love is the city whose mean streets offer him no shortage of opportunities to mete out justice.
Pic rapidly introduces the Spirit’s flamboyant archnemesis, the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), who seems just as immune to bodily injury as the Spirit is; voluptuous gold-digger Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), with whom the Spirit shares a troubled, sepia-toned history; pugnacious police commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria) and his daughter, Ellen (Sarah Paulson), a doctor who has long carried a torch for the masked crusader.
The question of how Colt acquired his powers is meant to propel the story forward, but an air of inconsequence sets in almost immediately with the first mano-a-mano clash between the Spirit and the Octopus, neither of whom seems capable of destroying the other. Barely 15 minutes in, the sense of anticlimactic overkill is palpable.
There’s a lot going on here, but none of it sticks — not the shopworn plotting nor the arch, stilted dialogue. The actors often seem to be delivering their lines in ironic quote marks, suggesting a straight-faced sendup of noir and comicbook conventions that, whatever the intended effect, falls mostly flat.
The Spirit himself doesn’t supply much of a rooting interest; Macht’s role is colorless in more ways than one, and we see more of the actor’s nicely sculpted torso than his face (most bigscreen heroes have the decency to take off their masks once in a while). Mendes and Lauria come off better, injecting their perfs with sizzle and bite, respectively.
Jaime King, so seductive in “Sin City,” is required to act mostly in silhouette as a lethal lady-in-the-lake type (adding a dash of Arthurian legend to the pic’s stew of Greek-mythology references), while Scarlett Johansson looks bored as the Octopus’ icy sidekick, Silken Floss. This leaves the bellowing, trigger-happy Jackson to pick up the slack and chew the scenery — or in this case, the green-screen — gleefully donning wigs, face-paint and, at one point, Nazi garb to drive home the fact that, yup, he’s one weird, bad dude.
Visually and viscerally, “The Spirit” is less extreme and intense than “Sin City,” and d.p. Bill Pope periodically allows some warmth and color to bleed into his stark palette. There’s no denying the fastidiousness and occasional virtuosity of the overall design, or the lustrous texture of the widescreen images. But all this incessant monochrome has its perils, too: When a man falls to the ground, his body covered with white bloodstains, it’s unclear whether he’s been felled by bullets or by incontinent birds.