THE SPIRIT (Frank Miller). 103 minutes. Opens December 25. See movies. Rating: NN
As the ads will hurry to inform you, The Spirit springs fully formed from the imagination of one man.
That man, however, is not the late writer-artist Will Eisner, who created the funny-book crusader in 1940 and shaped his slightly dented mythology for a dozen years afterward.
Nope, the man at the helm of The Spirit, the movie, is Frank Miller, the graphic-novel maverick rightly revered for The Dark Knight Returns, 300 and Sin City - burly, blood-soaked epics that still reverberate through comic culture. Offered the chance to direct a film of his own after the seismic success of 300 made him a bankable icon, Miller chose to reinvent Eisner's property in his own image.
So now The Spirit - played with density rather than gravity by Gabriel Macht - is a hard-boiled, unbreakable crime stopper in a bleak, monochromatic world, defending his beloved Central City from all threats. And the biggest threat of them all is The Octopus, a criminal mastermind embodied at full throttle by the shouting machine men call Samuel L. Jackson.
The Octopus is just as strong and just as indestructible as the Spirit, and he's evil and he has a thing about eggs. That's pretty much everything Jackson has to work with, so you really have to hand it to the guy - he fills in the considerable blanks with all the crazy he can find.
It's not like the potential isn't there. With another director at the helm, The Spirit might have worked as an entertaining diversion. A nice hybrid of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy and Tim Burton's Batman maybe.
But Miller doesn't have the slightest clue how to put a movie together. He thinks exclusively in comic book terms - interior monologues, dizzying aerial perspectives, close-ups of eyes, people framed in iconic poses - and when he opens with a title sequence aping the vivid black, white and red colour coding Robert Rodriguez employs in his adaptation of Sin City, it works.
But when it's time for the movie to settle down and be a movie - for the actors to make their characters into people, for the plot to kick in and for us to care about what's happening on the screen - Miller comes up empty. The Spirit isn't a movie and it isn't a comic book; it's caught between the two disciplines, never fully inhabiting one or the other. Also, it's the one thing neither a comic book nor a movie should ever be: it's boring.
What made Eisner's Spirit so engaging were the frequent traces of whimsy. But Miller's mindset is the farthest thing from whimsical. His vision of Central City is a bleak Gothamist metropolis populated by petty criminals, cynical cops and sex-hungry broads. Yeah, I said "broads"; anyone expecting Miller's stock representation of women as either angels or whores - with which Rodriguez had so much fun in Sin City - is going to be sorely disappointed.
Sure, a certain demographic will be over the moon at the sight of Scarlett Johansson decked out in full naughty Nazi nurse regalia... but that's a problem for their parents. And for Miller's therapist, I'd wager.