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 one redeeming feature. It illustrates the limitations of the comic-book aesthetic on the big screen.
Movies must obey the immutable laws of cinema and cannot unfold like many moving panels. For all its digital drawings, a comic-book movie must observe the narrative rhythms, scene construction, character development and dialogue delivery that cinema has honed.
Spirit does none of this, and it is truly a mess. Fans of Sin City and 300 will populate theatres, but box-office will fall quickly.
The film derives from a pioneering American comic-book series by Will Eisner, who introduced Spirit in 1940. The book 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 urban hell. The Spirit is one of the first masked heroes, a murdered cop who returns from the dead decked out in a suit, red tie and fedora. His opponent is the maniacal 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.
Scenes begin seemingly at random and end abruptly. Actors play characters at full bore. Dialogue has the crude energy of '30s Hollywood dramas but rarely any wit or engaging subtext. Emotions are forced and relationships get explored half-heartedly.
Gabriel Macht is as dull as the Spirit. Samuel L Jackson chews the graphic scenery as Octopus, while Scarlett Johansson gets lost as his 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 a 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 Spirit. Dan Lauria's hard-boiled police chief is a cliche.
Ultimately, The Spirit is never dull. But the same can be said of Chinese water torture.