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DEAD ON ARRIVAL
Miller's de-spiriting take does mentor no favors

The Spirit

Rated:PG-13
Studio:Lionsgate
Director:Frank Miller
Cast:Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Jaime King, Paz Vega
Genre:Action, Adventure
Our Rating:

At last winter’s New York Comic-Con, graphic-novelist-cum-filmmaker Frank Miller told an audience of fanboys how hard it had been to cast the lead of The Spirit, his adaptation of the seminal comic strip by his late friend and mentor, the great Will Eisner. The problem, Miller said, was that Hollywood has stopped breeding “real men.”

If masculinity is the ability to survive cinematic atrocity, then Gabriel Macht — the actor Miller ultimately chose for the role — will have proven his macho bona fides. Macht takes his place in the pantheon of forgotten live-action do-gooders like Klinton Spilsbury and Reb Brown. IMDB’ing those names will be more fun than you’ll have watching The Spirit, a flagrantly insufferable film I cannot imagine a sane and sentient being enduring in its entirety were a paycheck not involved.

All of the elements are on display that once made Miller an essential artist, but have more recently pushed him into tragic self-parody. Yet another relentlessly self-narrating hero subjects himself to unimaginable punishment while enjoying the attentions of a series of progressively more pneumatic babes — but never sealing the latter deal, because humble coitus cannot compete with the homoerotic thrill of beating the effin’ crap out of your enemies. “I’m gonna kill you all kinds of dead!” Macht’s Spirit warns early on.

Pssst: He’s talking to us.

The plot, such as it is, has the masked, mysteriously invincible crimefighter squaring off against a similarly formidable underworld mastermind named the Octopus. (“I got eight of everything!” Samuel L. Jackson’s villain declares, gamely resisting recessionary pressures.) To say more would be to impose coherence on a story that resists it assiduously, along with consistent motivation and any semblance of audience sympathy.

Visually at least, the template is clearly Sin City, the 2005 rendering of his own comic that Miller “co-directed” with Robert Rodriguez: The two films revel in the same green-screened hyperreality. But Sin City was an improbably joyous nexus of stylization, ultra-violence and genuine emotional heft — a vindicating event in a career that, on the printed page, was already headed deep south. Here, Miller treats everything as adolescent deconstruction, directing his cast to utter each line in cloying vaudeville style while jutting out their chins and shifting their eyes back and forth. It’s like a Mad TV sketch without a laugh track.

So where’s Eisner in all of this? Good question, especially given the reverent consensus that his Spirit strips were whimsical noir. Miller’s idea of whimsy, in contrast, is to tart up Jackson in full Nazi regalia, employing him to deliver a goonishly interminable speech about man’s centuries-old struggle with death. As for noir … well, there’s a nice shot of sunlight filtered through Venetian blinds.

As homage, it’s a bust. But if you’re into tough-guy auteurs with a perverse attraction to kamikaze moves, get ready to dole out the man points.

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