'The Spirit' walks a well-trod path of heroism

December 25, 2008|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Frank Miller's take on The Spirit should make comic modern-day fanboys happy, what with its dark undertones, its beat-it-to-a-pulp action and its sly winks at comic greats past and present. Everyone else, including fans of Will Eisner's original Spirit, may find themselves wondering what all the fuss is about.

By taking Eisner's '40s-era hero and updating him for the 21st century, Miller has done little more than make him just another guy fighting moral decrepitude in the big city. If that sounds like something you've heard before, it is - in both The Dark Knight and Miller's own Sin City, which Robert Rodriguez put on the big screen in 2005.

And The Spirit is nothing if not another chapter in the Sin City saga.

Gabriel Macht is The Spirit, once a policeman named Denny Colt, but now - thanks to a combination of old-fashioned bullets and newfangled chemicals - some sort of immortal (or at least unkillable) foe of evildoers in the urban cesspool of Central City.

As The Spirit, he's good at several things. Running along rooftops and jumping down to the street, his fluttering cape making him look menacing as all get out, for one. Attracting the ladies, for two. And getting kicked, beaten and otherwise pummeled by a similarly immortal (or unkillable) bad guy named The Octopus, played with full, righteous fervor by Samuel L. Jackson.

The plot of The Spirit, such as it is, is a muddle even by comic-book standards. It has something to do with the blood of Heracles and untold riches. But the real idea behind The Spirit, just as it was the real idea behind Sin City, is the preponderance of evil in this cynical world of ours, and whether real virtue is even possible anymore, much less relevant.

Miller, who wrote the script for Sin City, was clearly paying attention to what Rodriguez was doing there. Visually, both films stem from the same sensibility: a sort-of hyperbolic film noir, etched in somber blacks and occasional flashes of white, with searing swatches of red thrown in as exclamation points.

The visual palette is a perfect match for the mood of the film, creating a world especially thrilling to fans of comic books and graphic novels.

Still, there's an unavoidable feeling of been-there, done-that to just about everything that shows up onscreen. Macht's weary, fatalistic take on his heroic duties is right out of the Batman mold, while Jackson's Octopus seems little more than The Joker without all the face makeup.

One of the film's more engaging plot threads is a romance between Colt and an obsessively materialistic hottie named Sand Seref (Eva Mendes) that's been smoldering since both were teens. When Spirit and Sand are onscreen together, the movie threatens to really come to life, and even better, to take us somewhere we haven't been before.

But every time that relationship gets a full head of steam going, up pops The Octopus, and it's back to the depths of despair that films like this seem to enjoy wallowing in so much.

The Spirit ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

(Lionsgate) Starring Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson. Written and directed by Frank Miller. 104 mins. Rated PG-13 (violence, suggested sexuality, partial nudity)

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