If there is ever an Oscar category for best performance by an article of clothing, the red tie worn by the title character in this film would be the clear winner and the rain coat would most likely be the runner-up.
This film version of the innovative and influential comic book owes much more to writer/director Frank Miller than to the man who created the character, Will Eisner. Miller, who revitalized Batman as The Dark Knight and co-directed “Sin City,” based on his own comic book series, itself in part inspired by Eisner’s subversive noir stories.
The Spirit is is something more than a man but something less than a superhero. Once he was Denny Colt, a cop, but something has happened that gives him special power and special responsibility. His great love is the city and he serves as its masked and mysterious protector. But there are also women, many of them and all utterly captivating and utterly captivated by him — his childhood sweetheart, the doctor who patches him up, a rookie cop. And there is a super villain, Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), a guy who has developed a potion for giving him something on the brink of immortality. He has the same kind of special powers of healing that The Spirit does. And he wants something that will give him everything he needs to become all-powerful but it was in a box that got mixed up with something also very valuable but much more mundane.
Miller misses the forest for the trees here with luscious, insouciant images that sizzle and tantalize but finally detract from any sense of story, purpose, or character. I’ve seen lava lamps with more of a plot. And for an action movie it all seems very posed and static. Comic books, with their panel-bound drawings, provide a more muscular sense of motion than Miller does here. He pays more attention to the sole of The Spirit’s shoe than he does to anything that would connect us with the character or even connect the characters do each other. Everyone is arch. Everyone just poses. They might as well be trying out for “America’s Next Top Model.”
And Jackson is not just over the top. He is over whatever is over the top. As his sidekick, Scarlett Johansson is completely out of her depth and it is uncomfortable to see her floundering to try to look predatory. In the title role, Gabriel Macht is outdone by his clothes. The only watchable performance is from Eva Mendes as Sand Serif, the bad girl who could only have a heart of gold if she stole one.
Eye candy can only go so far. Archness is not the same as irony. Style is not the same as substance. Miller captures the letter, but what this film is lacking, in every sense of the word, is the Spirit.