Empty"The Spirit," graphic artist Frank Miller's first solo effort as a director after sharing credit with Robert Rodriguez on 2005's adaptation of his own "Sin City," has a single redeeming feature. It illustrates the limitations of the comic-book aesthetic on the big screen.
If we didn't realize this before, it's now clear: Movies must obey the immutable laws of cinema and cannot unfold like so many moving panels. For all its bold digital drawings, a comic-book movie must observe the narrative rhythms, scene construction, character development and dialogue delivery that cinema has honed for more than a century.
"Spirit" does none of this, and it is truly a mess. Fans of "Sin City" and "300" will populate theaters for its opening, but boxoffice will fall quickly. The film's campiness might then pull in a different sort of aficionados: those who celebrate films like "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" for their silly acting and overripe dialogue.
The film derives from a pioneering American comic-book series by Will Eisner, who introduced "Spirit" in 1940. The book somewhat anticipated the noir movies and pulp fiction of the postwar era as it traffics in obsessed crime-fighters, vicious villains and hard-as-diamond dames who move through the nightscape of an urban hell.
The Spirit is one of the first masked heroes, a murdered cop who mysteriously returns from the dead decked out in a suit, red tie and fedora. His opponent is a maniacal criminal aptly named the Octopus.
The film's look is not as monochromatic as "Sin City," but everything is dark and moody as daylight seldom shoots through Miller's artful frames. The graphic design trumps all story and character decisions, though. Miller has storyboarded the film, but he hasn't really written it.
Scenes begin seemingly at random and end abruptly. Actors play characters at full bore. Dialogue has the crude energy of '30s Hollywood melodramas but rarely any wit or engaging subtext. All emotions are forced, and relationships get explored half-heartedly.
Gabriel Macht is sturdy but dull as the restless Spirit. Samuel L. Jackson chews the graphic scenery as Octopus, while Scarlett Johansson seems to get lost in that same scenery as his weirdly docile sidekick Silken Floss. Eva Mendes plays jewel thief Sand Saref as a one-note temptress, while Paz Vega as a French assassin and Jaime King as an underwater nymph go for the same effect. How many vamps can a movie contain?
Sarah Paulson comes as close as any to an actual character, playing a doctor who lovingly patches up the fast-healing Spirit. Dan Lauria's hard-boiled police chief and Stana Katic's amped rookie cop never shake free from being cliches. Louis Lombardi appears multiple times as cloned Octopus henchmen.
One thing about "The Spirit" is that it's never dull. Then again, the same can be said of Chinese water torture. (partialdiff)