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HARBINGER OF DOOM: Jamie King's Lorelei should have prophesied the problems with this adaptation of 'The Spirit.'

Black Mask

True to his name, Frank Miller grinds it out for screen version of Eisner's 'The Spirit'

By Richard von Busack

I AM DEATH, and I have come for your movie. Floating in the water, Jaime King plays a rhinestone-studded Lorelei, harbinger of doom. She beckons her narrowly escaped lover: the undead polygamous crime fighter the Spirit (Gabriel Macht). He currently resides in Wildwood Cemetery in a crypt full of cats. When summoned via cell phone, the Spirit leaps out, somersaulting over the rooftops on his way to find Center City's crime boss, the Octopus. Odd thing is, in director Frank Miller's The Spirit, the masked crime fighter finds the Octopus right away. And the Octopus hits him over the head with an entire porcelain toilet.

I was willing, but The Spirit was weak. The film is flat and synthetic, with less of the curves and visual sparseness of Miller and Robert Rodriguez's Sin City. Here again, the characters are silhouettes, of deep red, black or white, surrounded by a muddy sepia city that looks like the cheapest rear projection imaginable. In Will Eisner's innovative newspaper comic strips, the hero's suit was a deep blue. You start to miss that primary color like a dead friend. The Spirit runs around through what seem to be Eastern European quantities of snowfall. Soliloquizing like crazy, he tries to make up for the loss of Eisner's two breakthroughs as a cartoonist: the use of panels of changing shape for emphasis and a famous expertise with sound effects and lettering.

Never have so many beautiful actresses been given so little to do. Miller has them stand around helplessly sometimes. As a policewoman, Stana Katic, record-holder of the world's fastest onscreen lesbian pickup (Selma Blair, Feast of Love, 55.4 seconds) is particularly sad. Katic looks alive and lively, but Miller has her stand her ground, wait for her cues and say "Thank you, sir" a lot. The most important dame in the movie is the lady thief Sand Serif (that name was Eisner's zinger for the linotype room). Eva Mendez is dressed somewhere between Edith Head and Frederick's of Hollywood. The neo-'40s style is good for a woman of her ripeness. (In a fantasy sequence, the Spirit imagines himself ant-size, sliding down her plush lower lip.) But Mendez doesn't move well in this get-up; then again, she doesn't move well at the best of times. Scarlett Johansson has a smaller part as the briskly unpleasant scientist, or something, Silken Floss. She, too, is made to stand still stage-right while Samuel L. Jackson flips out.

As the Octopus, Samuel L. tries through sheer lung power to flesh out a villain depicted by Eisner as a pair of flapping disembodied kid gloves. He becomes a villain of many wardrobes, one of them an SS uniform. In this telling, the crime boss is now essential to the origin story of how Boy Scout cop Denny Colt became a well-dressed zomb. The tone is fatally wonky, and you can't figure out who the movie is for. Miller tries to achieve larger-than-life violence without making it hurt. What emerges is something as bad as the budget-cut third season of the Adam West Batman, with thugs wearing name shirts being knocked around in front of scrims. No one can sum up the experience as well as Jaime King's goddess of death: "Such pain, such suffering! Sleep!"

Movie Times THE SPIRIT (PG-13; 102 min.), directed by Frank Miller, written by Miller based on the comic books of Will Eisner and starring Gabriel Macht and Eva Mendes, opens Dec. 25.

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