Ilove the two “Sin City” films (2005, 2014), so the existence of “The Spirit” (2008) is both good and bad. On one hand, it’s another hardboiled movie in the style of a black-and-white comic (along with red and some washed-out colors). On the other hand, it’s a much lesser installment in this little subgenre, even though it’s written and directed by “Sin City’s” Frank Miller.
Miller wrote and co-directed the “Sin City” films, but after watching “The Spirit,” it seems those pictures owe their greatness to the guiding hand of co-director Robert Rodriguez. “The Spirit” has “Sin City’s” style in a broad sense, but everything about it is worse. The acting, the editing, the atmospherics and the pacing are all sloppier, clunkier and less inspired.
“The Spirit,” which comes from a Will Eisner comic strip that launched at the dawn of superheroes in 1940, is essentially “Sin City” combined with a superhero narrative, with a dollop of farce added. None of the comedy lands, but the saving grace is that the film doesn’t believe in the farcical elements at its heart, so it keeps springing back to the hardboiled style.
Some lines are decent in the abstract, like The Spirit’s (Gabriel Macht) demand that someone get him a tie, “and it better be red.” But it’s hard to muster up a laugh because the failure of so many previous gags is such a downer.
The worst “comedic” offenses are the various henchmen (Louis Lombardi), all of whom were grown in the lab of Samuel L. Jackson’s mad scientist/supervillain Octopus. The joke is that they are dumb and annoying. Yawn.
A rookie cop, Morgenstern, is also distracting because Stana Katic (“Castle”) plays the role as whimsy, but no one else is doing that, even in the same scene. Scarlett Johansson, as Octopus’ partner in crime Silken Floss, clearly doesn’t want to be in the movie, and she kills the energy of every scene she’s in (but thankfully, she’s not in the film all that much).
Jackson gives a solid performance, either because he’s a pro or because he thought “The Spirit” would be made into a great film in post-production. Macht is OK as the titular Denny Colt/The Spirit, who has come back from the dead, a benefactor of the villain’s test run on an experiment. He protects Central City the way Batman protects Gotham. Like the nemesis who created him, he’s near-invincible.
“The Spirit” came out at a time when referencing wider comic culture was still a thing to do, so Superman, Batman, Robin and comic artist Steve Ditko get name-dropped, never to even giggle-worthy effect.
The best part of “The Spirit” is the relationship between The Spirit and Sand Saref (Eva Mendes). A flashback sequence shows them as teens, and while the young actors are stiff, this at least gives the film some heart. Also, as much as this movie squanders its potential beauty, Mendes is easy to look at and she leans into her natural femme fatale qualities.
Although The Spirit talks in voiceovers about how the city is his true love, a lot of women circle in and out of his life. All of them are sketchily drawn. Sarah Paulson does the maximum with what little material she’s given: She’s Ellen, the doctor who patches up The Spirit after fights and develops feelings for him. Paz Vega (“Spanglish”) has a brief, sexy turn as a dancer named Plaster of Paris. And Jaime King’s Lorelei is the embodiment of the afterlife, regularly trying to tempt The Spirit’s consciousness to come to her realm.
A generous viewer might think “This is almost like ‘Sin City.’ ” But it’s a constantly nagging “almost.” “The Spirit” plays like a “Sin City” filter has been put over the film in a computer editing program. There is a lot of what looks like snowfall in most outdoor shots, yet the city isn’t notably covered in snow. Some scenes feel like they are on stages, as if it’s a theatrical play. Action-oriented moments have more of a sense of scale, but not enough.
“The Spirit” is not the worst superhero movie you’ll ever come across. But ironically, it’s lacking in spirit.