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The Kiss of Death

MOVIE REVIEW
The Spirit (2008)

19_300dpi
Lionsgate/Odd Lot Entertainment

In "The Spirit," director Frank Miller takes Will Eisner's 1940s comic strip and drop-kicks it into a Wurlitzer jukebox of noise, melodrama and illogic. He also gives a clear indication of just how much the big-screen version of "Frank Miller's Sin City" came from Robert Rodriguez, since claims that the two films look the same are a long way off the mark. The green-screen method may be similar, but "The Spirit" lacks almost all of "Sin City's" detailed atmospheric backgrounds and visual tics. Instead, Mr. Miller opts for something much more archetypal, laying on his splashes of color with the broadest brush he could lay his hands on. It also lacks "Sin City's" whiff of insanity, a much more damaging loss. "The Spirit" is many things, but it is not out of control; and its biggest flaw is the air of cold calculation that hangs over it. Mr. Miller is being accused of having lost his marbles, but any sign that the director was having an actual brainstorm would have livened things up no end.

As incarnated by Gabriel Macht, who spends a lot of time looking like a man braced for impact, Eisner's Denny Colt is turned from a cop-turned-vigilante into an out-and-out superhero. In the strip, Eisner's typography and graphic design made his characters kinetic by freeing them from the panel grid; while reading it, you wouldn't have been surprised to find the Spirit sitting in your lap. Mr. Miller takes a more modern tack, gifting the character with immortality via a McGuffin of impressive proportions, and having him somersault from the rooftops in a manner that hasn't got any more convincing since Spider-Man did it in 2002.

As a hormonally-stuffed noir pastiche of guns, hoodlums and a wide variety of dames, "The Spirit" isn't so far off the mark; but Mr. Miller has set it in the same uncomfortable Neverland of SWAT teams and fedoras, flak jackets and femmes fatales, that the "Sin City" comics inhabited. A modern Xerox machine is on hand for the express purpose of having Eva Mendes sit on it, even though she's dressed like a moll at the time. On the other hand, Mr. Miller's equally wayward but infinitely more interesting choice to hire David Newman as composer is a notion that really works, and the film's score operates on an expressive, emotional level that's devoid of sarcasm.

The joke in "The Spirit" is that women can't help falling for the Spirit, but he only loves the big city. Even death, in the form of Jaime King as a watery siren dressed like a glitter ball, can't claim him for long. But characterizing women on screen does not appear to be a Miller strength, leaving some of the performers in the lurch. Paz Vega and Sarah Paulson have a particularly thin time of it, both outshone by Stana Katic as a wise-ass cop, the only broad here who could actually fit into a 1940s film. The headline duo also have some problems: Ms. Mendes is clearly game for anything and manages not to burst out laughing, but Scarlett Johansson is deserving of what sympathy can be mustered for a thankless role as Samuel L. Jackson's sidekick.

You'll have heard that Mr. Jackson is in a relaxed mood here. Presumably, Mr. Miller felt that, having had to wheel the strip's unseen villain the Octopus into plain sight, he then had nothing to lose. As loony a tune as Mr. Jackson's ever played, the Octopus has no visible plot function other than to provide exposition in the middle of ever more surreal punch-ups. Eventually he and Ms. Johansson climb into Nazi outfits, which in such a screamingly camp context should not have offended anyone who ever laughed at Mel Brooks.

"You are taking all this far too seriously," complains Ms. Johansson towards the end, and she's speaking for her director. Mr. Miller has made what he intended, a genuine attempt to take the playfulness and laconic grace of the original strip and create a modern analogue of it. Sadly these are graceless, long-winded times, hence the result. But if nothing else, Mr. Miller's chosen a good moment to completely blow open the question of how much comic book movies owe their source material. Is slavish recreation a blind alley, given that the look, effect and atmosphere of the two forms will never overlap no matter how hard fan-boys wish? Questions to come back to when - if - "Watchmen" arrives.

THE SPIRIT

Opened on Dec. 25, 2008 in the United States and on Jan. 1 in Britain.

Written and directed by Frank Miller, based on the comic book series by Will Eisner; director of photography, Bill Pope; edited by Gregory Nussbaum; music by David Newman; art director, Rosario Provenza; produced by Deborah Del Prete, Gigi Pritzker and Michael E. Uslan; released by Lionsgate. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Gabriel Macht (the Spirit), Eva Mendes (Sand Saref), Sarah Paulson (Ellen), Dan Lauria (Dolan), Paz Vega (Plaster of Paris), Eric Balfour (Mahmoud), Jaime King (Lorelei), Scarlett Johansson (Silken Floss), Samuel L. Jackson (the Octopus) and Louis Lombardi (Phobos).

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