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The Spirit (PG-13) ***

The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson, center), Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson, right) and Phobos (Louis Lombardi, rear) in The Spirit. Photo credit: Lionsgate/Odd Lot Entertainment.
The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson, center), Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson, right) and Phobos (Louis Lombardi, rear) in The Spirit. Photo credit: Lionsgate/Odd Lot Entertainment.

By Rick Bentley, McClatchy News Service

The bold visual strokes comic artist Frank Miller used to create Sin City revealed he was the only director who could do justice to the film version of Will Eisner’s ground-breaking comic series The Spirit.

Eisner redefined comics in the 1940s and early ’50s with his creation of a print version of the film-noir style. His stories were gritty. He used humor like a hidden weapon, exposed only when he needed to make a point.

Miller has shown the same in-your-face skill in the creation of his comics and films. The result of Miller’s vision of Eisner’s The Spirit is a visual explosion ignited by at times campy acting and melodrama so thick it will hurt your teeth. It’s hard not to grimace when one character tells a wounded partner: “Just shut up and bleed.”

But a traditional presenting of The Spirit would have ended up looking like the lame 1994 Alec Baldwin disaster The Shadow. And going as bleak as The Dark Knight would not have exposed the fanciful aspects of the character.

Only Miller’s vision of a world that often exists only in silhouette or shadows is suitable for telling this tale.

The Spirit leaps right into the depths of the comic strip. Viewers are given flashbacks as to how Denny Colt goes from an aw-shucks hero to midnight vigilante. But the look back is only a courtesy glimpse. This film is about the Spirit’s (Gabriel Macht) unstoppable attempts to do good as he clashes with the never-ending evil of the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson).

Macht manages to meld macho with melodrama to make the Spirit come to life. It was not an easy job. The character dances so close to lunacy that the edge always seems too close for comfort.

The story moves along with the aid of the intoxicating Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), the complicated Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) and the death-in-waiting Lorelei Rox (Jaime King). These are such strong, tough and alluring characters they can be forgiven for a few moments of total acting insanity. The only one who can’t be forgiven is Jackson, whose big onscreen rants have worn thin.

Miller’s visual style is like a hallucination. Imagery slips from reality to fantasy in a blink. A mix of old and new costuming and technology gives the movie a timeless feel as it embraces the two-dimensional world of comics and then slides into a complicated tale of love lost. Under Miller’s guidance the result is a loyal and loving tribute.

Cast: Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Frank Miller

Screenwriter: Frank Miller. Based on the comic book by Will Eisner

Producers: Deborah Del Prete, Gigi Pritzker, Michael E. Uslan

A Lionsgate release. Running time: 108 minutes. Violence, adult themes, brief nudity. Playing at area theaters.

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