With his new movie, "Sin City 1.5," Frank Miller does a puzzling disservice to the work of the late Will Eisner. Miller clearly reveres Eisner (he published a book of conversations with the older artist in 2005, shortly after Eisner's death), but then most comic book artists do. Eisner brought mood and depth and gritty detail to the comic book panel; he was the creator of the eye-grabbing "splash page" and the godfather of the graphic novel. And the Spirit — that noirish urban crime fighter with the bitty mask and the big fedora — was his most famous creation. But in bringing this character to the screen, Miller, as both writer and director, has imposed his own muscle-bound graphic style on Eisner's more pliable comic-book world, and practically obliterated it. The movie is actually called "The Spirit," of course, but Eisner fans are likely to be, shall we say, surprised.
This wouldn't matter much if the picture had a spirit of its own. But it lurches about in search of a narrative structure — it's essentially a procession of splash-page set pieces. They look great; but as was the case with "Sin City," Miller's first film foray (on which he was credited as co-director with Robert Rodriguez), the dark, airless digital environments in this movie, with their drained colors and black-slab nightscapes, soon grow monotonous. And the story's not strong enough to stand up under the oppressive stylization.
In Eisner's comics of the 1940s and early '50s, the Spirit battled many villains. Here, blandly portrayed by Gabriel Macht, he's up against just one of them, the Octopus. In the comics, this character was little more than a set of evil eyes and gloved hands — he was never fully revealed. In the movie he's revealed to be Samuel L. Jackson, which turns out to be another big problem. Jackson brings what have become his usual psycho-badass mannerisms to the part, and Miller was uninclined to rein them in, apparently. The result is Jackson's most embarrassingly self-indulgent performance, an extended eruption of hambone megalomania. (When the Spirit tells the Octopus, "I'm gonna kill you all kinds of dead," you so wish you could help out.)
The Octopus is determined to lay his hands on a vase containing the blood of the mythological (and therefore presumably bloodless) Heracles. Assisting him in this quest are his hot science-girl sidekick, Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), and a bevy of chuckling cloned thugs (all played by Louis Lombardi). The Spirit gets backup from Central City's top cop, Commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria), who knows his real identity, and from Dolan's smart, perky daughter, Ellen (Sarah Paulson). Complicating matters are the mysterious Sand Saref (Eva Mendes) — the Spirit's childhood sweetheart, long since gone bad — and such ambient babes as Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega) and Lorelei Rox (Jaime King). All of the women in the picture melt into puddles of adulation at the Spirit's approach, which is odd: Macht has been directed to give such a limp, jokey performance (the rest of the movie practically runs him over) that you wonder why they haven't set their erotic sights a little — no, a lot — higher.
Some of the scenes, like an extended Spirit-Octopus beatdown, sprawl and sputter. Others, like the one in which we suddenly see Jackson and Johansson marching around in Nazi regalia, come out of nowhere and quickly return there. Johansson gives her lines a nice sarcastic spin, and Mendes is suitably steamy, but all of the actors are underserved by the director, who seems to have been preoccupied with the film's visual design. Miller is certainly a filmmaker who knows what he wants to do. Why he had to do it to the Spirit is a question he'll no doubt soon be asked.
Check out Kurt Loder's review of "Valkyrie," which also opens this week, and his picks for the best movies and performances of 2008.
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