Movies based on comic book characters have invaded theaters like a fleet of ships nowadays. The main protagonists of the four-color opuses either have super powers and/or cool gadgets. The title hero of the quirky, over-the-top but romantic "The Spirit", has none, but that's doesn't make him uninteresting, especially in the surprisingly competent, script/directorial hands of Frank Miller, the Sam Peckinpah of the comic book industry.
Based on the 1940s comic strip created by the late Will Eisner, the master of sequential illustration and an influence/friend of Mr. Miller's, Central City cop Denny Colt (adept, GQ model-like Gabriel Macht) is killed in action. He doesn't stay dead for long when he leaves his grave and offers his death-cheating advantage, by being a "super cop", to top magistrate Dolan ("The Wonder Years" alum Dan Lauria). The reason of this resurrection isn't so good; Colt's the guinea pig of egomaniacal mobster The Octopus (Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson, who's a ball of fun here), who's also immortal, but wants bona fide, magical immortality by getting a vase containing the blood of demi-god Hercules. A screw up occurs, involving international jewel thief/black widow assassin Sand Saref (sexy Eva Mendes of "Training Day"), an old childhood girlfriend of Colt's. Guns are drawn; knives are thrown and sexual pheromones creep in the cold air of the metropolis.
If you find this film a Batman rip-off, you're so laughable to feel that way ( Eisner went to Dewitt Clinton High School, Bronx, NY with Batman framer Bob Kane) and if you think Mr. Miller should stick to comic books, you're certifiable (He could balance both film and comic books, if need be).
After co-directing the cine-translation of own crime saga, "Sin City" with Robert Rodriguez (the Spy Kids and El Mariachi sagas; "Planet Terror") and producing the adaptation of his take of the Thermopylae battle, "300" by Zack Snyder ("Watchmen"), Miller proves to be up to the task of helming a film featuring a mentor's signature character, whose own obscurity is enough to reason why Mr. Miller handled the film. I ask hard-core fanboys who demean Miller's treatment: who else could have direct it? Spielberg? Santa Claus? The Easter Bunny? The Tooth Fairy? Martians? Sure, there's the over-the top moments where Jackson's dressed as a samurai and a Nazi, and when Jackson clobbers Macht with a toilet (!), but if you've read Miller's work, you know what to expect: darkness mixed with madcap humor. If you don't, this is a fantasy world. Accept it or don't.
Miller uses what he's learned from Rodriquez here and uses it well. The mix-match of cornball movie dialogue (Miller's a film noir fan, as long as a lover of the Warner Bros's animated Looney Tunes shorts), vintage fashion and modern technology playfully echoes "Batman: The Aninated Series", and the use of digital background and minimal sets gives the film an avant-garde, stage play atmosphere.
Game are the actors. A second fiddle in films like "Behind Enemy Lines" and "Because I Said So", Mr. Macht resurrects the late Cary Grant and Chris Reeve (the latter watched the former in "Bringing Up Baby" in order to play Clark Kent in the "Superman" films, and Mr. Eisner used the former as a model to create his hero) with his valiant yet skirt-chasing persona while Jackson, a Miller fan, redeems his absence from "Sin City" by matching dire villainy with Macht's classic heroism.
Like Denny, it's hard to choose a favorite among the ladies: vixen Saref (Ms. Mendes should play assassin Mariah, if "Sin City: Hell and Back" is cine-adapted); the Octopus's brainy, sexy gun moll Silken Floss (Woody Allen stable actress Scarlett Johansson); Dolan's daughter/Florence Nightingale doc Ellen (Sarah Paulson of "Studio 60" and "The Notorious Bettie Page"), chipper rookie cop Morgenstern (Stana Katic of the crime drama TV series "Castle"); dancing torturer Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega of "Spanglish") or death goddess Lorelei ("City" alum Jamie King). It's a harem, people!
Mr. Lauria's bulldog, Ernest Borgnine-like demeanor is tough, familiar and likable while Louis Lombardi ("24") is a hoot as multiple "Smiley Goon" clones the Octopus mass produces. They probably share borderline Down's Syndrome, along with looks.
Mr. Miller makes a cameo as a cop who gets decapitated, his fourth "cine-death". First blown up in a drug lab in "Robocop 2" (which Miller co-penned and later demeaned), then cerebrally knifed by Bullseye in the film version of "Daredevil" (which he reinvigorated), next shot by Marv in "City" and now this
I should say, "Oh my God! They killed Frank Miller! You bastards!" Look out for comic book historical references.
What's also interesting is the exclusion of the Spirit's sidekick, young cabbie Ebony White. According to Miller, he didn't want to put a child in an adult world. I figured he didn't know how to modernize a racially stereotypical character, which Mr. Eisner later apologized for creating, and that's probably for the best.
In a recent Q and A, Miller joked if Eisner, who died in 2005, knew he was the Spirit's custodian, he would have beaten him up. If I were Eisner, I'd give Miller a big hug for making a shamelessly fun film, better than the cheesy "Sheena", based on another character co- created by him (with Jerry Iger). Eisner was wise to not have his name attached to it, but if he were alive, he wouldn't mind being name-attached to "The Spirit". It's in reliable hands.
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