\This has got to be the ultimate geek movie—a treatment of a classic comic character done up in the visual style of a graphic novel by the guy who not only revivified The Dark Knight in print before he was resurrected so brilliantly on screen but was also responsible for the book version of “300,” as well as co-directing “Sin City.” But Frank Miller’s take on Will Eisner’s semi-spectral crime-fighter comes DOA and never springs back to life.
The character started life, so to speak, in newspapers as far back as 1940, and has been periodically rebooted since then, most recently in a 2007 DC comic series: he’s Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht), a young cop who’s apparently killed—originally by a villain called Cobra but in a later version by the malevolent Octopus—only to come to life again after being buried by Commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria) and his daughter Ellen (Sarah Paulson), the guy’s erstwhile girlfriend. Donning a mask, suit, bright red tie and fedora, Colt takes on the persona of The Spirit, fighting all manner of baddies (many of them women).
Miller’s take maintains the essence of this. When it opens, The Spirit—who can be hurt but not killed—is already a well-established figure in Central City, working with Dolan and having his injuries tended to by the fawning Ellen. He gets embroiled in a case in which a vessel containing the blood of Herakles, which we later learn can confer immortality, is being sought not only by the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) and his sultry henchwoman Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) but by another master thief, the gorgeous Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), who turns out to be the girl Colt had loved in his youth, who became disaffected when her father was killed and vowed to become rich whatever the cost. Also hovering over things is Lorelei (Jaime King), apparently some sort of Angel of Death awaiting The Spirit’s final demise.
The bulk of the movie is devoted to splashily silly action sequences in which the hero does battle with Octopus and his minions (a bunch of clones all played by a single rotund gentleman, Louis Lombardi, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Ed Wood repertory regular Tor Johnson—a trick that works no better than when Tim Burton used it for the Oompa-Loompas in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) or, on occasion, Sand Saref. In the course of things he learns the origin of his powers, which result from the Octopus’ experiments. Of course there’s a final face-off with the evil genius.
And throughout there’s an effort to add levity with dialogue so ultra hard-boiled that if an egg were dealt with similarly, it would certainly explode in the pan. That’s—if you’ll spare the pun—consistent with the spirit of Eisner’s original, which dealt in laughs as well as thrills. But any amusement the purple prose generates evaporates after the first few minutes, leaving the rest of the movie sounding arch and goofy.
That’s especially true when Miller’s ludicrous dialogue is delivered by these actors. The Spirit is supposed to be halfway between life and death, but that’s no reason to have him played by an absolute nonentity like Macht, who’s handsome enough but blander than bland. Presumably to compensate, Jackson chews the scenery mercilessly, belting out his lines with lip-smacking gusto while flashing a smile that wouldn’t be out of place, if you’ll excuse the expression, in a minstrel show. (A sequence in which he dons a Nazi uniform to threaten the captured Spirit is, even in this context, a low point.) Octopus offs an underlying who’s failed him at one point by saying that he refuses to have “egg on his face.” In that Jackson definitely fails.
Elsewhere Mendes brings some juice to Sand Saref, but Johannson merely poses ineffectually as Floss, Paulson is dully nice, and King is utterly wasted. Meanwhile, Lauria is so bombastic as the police commissioner that he’s an obviously choice for the obligatory dyspeptic captain in any buddy-cop TV series that comes up in the future.
All of which leaves the stylish look of the picture as its sole saving grace. But even here the effect is transitory. Though the images are initially striking, they quickly grow so tiresomely monochromatic that when the occasional splash of color appears it’s a reason to cheer. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last long.
Miller has surely succeeded in making “The Spirit” seem like a graphic novel brought to life. A bad graphic novel, that is. Maybe that, along with his name, will be enough for the comic-book crowd. But I doubt it.