Adaptation is devoid of 'Spirit'

Posted: December 23, 2008

Hard-boiled and half-baked, The Spirit mashes vintage comic strips with new-fangled CGI, sucking the very life out of a mid-century pop icon in the process.

Frank Miller, who began his career as an artist for Marvel (Daredevil was one of his early assignments), now seems bent on transposing the multi-panel, word-balloon format of comic books to live-action film in the most soul-crushing ways.

Having collaborated with Robert Rodriguez on the green-screened, pinup pulp of Sin City, Miller takes his solo directing shot with The Spirit. It's a numbing adaptation of the old and much-loved series - about a domino-masked, crime-busting cop back from the grave - created by the late, great Will Eisner.

The Spirit stars the charisma-challenged Gabriel Macht in the title role, hambone Samuel L. Jackson as the villain, and an eye-candy harem of fantasy femmes (Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Sarah Paulson, Paz Vega).

Miller's idea was to put them in cartoonish neo-'40s getups, orchestrate a few fights, and let fly with ridiculously lusty, crusty dialogue. After the actors' soundstage work was done, a team of digital artists painted in the green screens with noirish cityscapes and bold, stylized backdrops.

As for the plot: something to do with an ancient vase, the blood of Heracles, and, oh yeah, immortality and world domination. Ho hum.

The sleek, shadowy settings, which pay homage to 1940s and '50s B-movies in a fake kind of way, are matched by line readings that are as vacuous as they are arch. (Miller wrote the screenplay, too.) The nadir of knuckleheadedness is reached in a scene in which Jackson, as the Octopus, a bad guy with bad eye makeup, and Johansson, as Silken Floss, his slinky, bespectacled hench-lady, sport SS uniforms and blather on to a captive Spirit - strapped to a dentist chair and about to be injected with a lethal serum.

Behind Jackson and Johansson: a projected image of Adolf Hitler. Yes, yet another title to add to this holiday season's list of Nazi-themed classics!

Mendes is curvy and vampy as Sand Saref, a jewel thief of sorts who knew the Spirit back when they were both innocent teens on the streets of Central City. Paulson plays Ellen, a physician with a serious crush on the Spirit - even though she knows he'll never stop eyeballing every leggy dame that sashays into view.

Maybe if there was something going with the dialogue - snappy Chandlerisms, say, or even just sentences that made sense - the fussy digital artifice of The Spirit wouldn't seem so, well, dispiriting.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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