Well, now we know. It was certainly tempting—especially for those of us who’d never been much impressed by Robert Rodriguez and his ramshackle DIY aesthetic—to ascribe most of the credit for Frank Miller’s Sin City to Miller himself, what with his name being right in the title and all. What might this comic-book titan accomplish if left entirely to his own devices? Alas, The Spirit, Miller’s solo directorial debut, suggests that he was responsible only for Sin City’s surface affectations: the monochromatic look, the hard-boiled attitude. Whatever alchemical process it was that allowed that joint effort to transcend its multipanel origin and function as an arresting, vivid moving picture, it sure as hell ain’t in evidence here.
Faithlessly adapted from Will Eisner’s proto-noir ’40s comic strip, The Spirit invests far more energy in the precise shade of its titular hero’s red tie than in its convoluted narrative, which is utterly devoid of even the weirdly regressive (some would say Neanderthal) subtext that animates Miller’s own work as a writer. The film amounts to a seemingly endless series of pointless battles between the Spirit (Macht), a former cop who was apparently killed before the movie started and then reborn as an undead avenger, and the Octopus (Jackson), a diabolical supervillain whose most terrifying power is his ability to shout inane threats at the top of his lungs. The Octopus wants to get his tentacles on a magical urn that will render him invincible. The Spirit, between passion-free dalliances with various generic vamps (Mendes, Paz Vega, Sarah Paulson), must stop him.
Part of the problem here is that nothing is ever remotely at stake. Since he’s already dead (apparently—it’s all rather murky), the Spirit can’t (apparently) be killed, or even significantly wounded. Neither can the Octopus, judging from the punishment he takes. So they just keep on beating the crap out of each other, over and over, until a sense of futility settles upon the audience like a soggy shroud. Worse still, the film isn’t even kinetically engaging—unlike Sin City, it feels utterly embalmed, an extravagant yet meaningless doodle. At one point, for no good reason, Mendes’ sultry jewel thief photocopies her own ass. That’s this movie in a nutshell.