FILM REVIEW: The Spirit

12A • 102 mins • 1 January

Director: Frank Miller

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

Rating:

“My city screams,” declares the domino-masked crimefighter. But that’s not the sound of a metropolis in torment. That’s the restless spectre of comic book legend Will Eisner, rightly appalled by what Frank Miller has done to his baby.

Oh, Miller may talk up his reverence for his old friend’s work, but from the pseudo-Sin City opening, all stark monochrome and snow, it’s obvious that he’s determined to stamp, no, jackboot, his vision on this project. It’s the same creative presumption that sees him bin the hero’s immortal blue suit for a black number, a sin against iconhood as daft as dressing Superman in mauve.

But Miller doesn’t only stumble on four-colour aesthetics. Somehow he misses the entire heart of Eisner’s canon. The original Spirit tales were humanitarian fables of fate and redemption, the struggles of deadbeat souls seen with a wise, warm eye. There are no human beings in Miller’s city, no little people. He populates it with a circus of grotesques, from Samuel L Jackson’s gun-toting, mascara-eyed villain to Eve Mendes’s bling-obssessed femme fatale.

Where Eisner specialised in a silky, smoky sense of noir erotica, Miller deals in simple kink. There’s an unsubtle, faintly creepy salaciousness here. Women become dolls draped with Miller’s fetishes, from the Times Square-hooker look to Nazi exploitation chic. Even the Spirit doesn’t escape a whiff of misplaced perversity: “The city is my sweetheart, my plaything,” he tells us, with the lascivious rasp of a man who frots himself against fire hydrants when no-one is looking.

Sure, it’s a gorgeous looking film, if wearyingly so. The cinematography is sublime, and Miller’s a talented enough stylist to deliver little sunbursts of sudden beauty – the Spirit’s childhood sweetheart walks away into a frame of pure, bold scarlet and it’s breathtaking. But no amount of flash can camouflage the career-low performances, the scaffolding where characterisation should be, the pitiful cod ‘40s dialogue or the monstrously fumbled comedy. Jackson wallops the Spirit with a urinal seat then cries “Toilets are always funny!” – if you’ve ever wondered what humour sounds like in the icy vacuum of space, now’s your chance.

Nick Setchfield