Bad movie heaven

Even with Scarlett Johansson’s fetching self

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Watching The Spirit is what it must feel like to be hit in the face with one of the hero's haymakers — shock, then pain, exhilaration, dizziness and finally nausea. This brawny, swaggering and often incomprehensible CGI-covered mess of a movie is either an achievement of mad genius or a colossal flop, but it's never boring — it's charged with the excitement of not knowing what's coming.

Frank Miller's a comic-book legend, his stark visuals and hyper-gritty style cast a massive shadow in which the industry still basks. His recent work has attracted Hollywood, with dynamic translations of Sin City and 300 dividing critics but winning at the box office. Success must've convinced some bright exec to let Miller take a shot at directing, and he chose to adapt the most famous character of his artist hero Will Eisner. The Spirit was a sensation in '40s newspapers, its inventive, witty noir tales as influential as Miller's '80s comic stuff. But however hallowed the Spirit name is in geek circles, it means nothing to most under 60, thus allowing Miller to take a big dump all over the legacy.

Take the casting of obscure and limited pretty-boy Gabriel Macht in the lead as Denny Colt. He's a cop gunned down and then bizarrely resurrected as a mysterious avenging angel who wears a mask, hat and a flaming red tie; and he's handsomely flavorless, rasping his way through the clunky script. In fairness, few could make something of brain-dead tough-guy patter such as, "I'm gonna kill you all kinds of dead," which Macht gruffly spits out like a dude choking on a lozenge.

Samuel L. Jackson is his sworn enemy the Octopus, a crime lord with "eight of everything." He gets to play dress-up as a bandito, a samurai, a mad scientist, a pimp and even a full-on Nazi officer. Jackson's beyond giving a shit, and he bellows and cackles his way through the flick like a hillbilly who just won the lotto. And Jackson's is not the worst performance here. Also, there's a bevy of stunning, sexed-up femme fatales vying for the Spirit's affection. Scarlett Johansson bats her 6-inch eyelashes as the evil Silken Floss, Eva Mendes Xeroxes her ample butt as lost-love Sand Saref, Paz Vega slinks about as a belly dancing baddie called Plaster of Paris (but with a Spanish accent) and Jamie King is the Angel of Death, looking like a glittery Britney Spears video leftover.

The slick monochromatic color scheme is at odds with the wobbly tone, which shifts from grit to camp at breakneck speed. The characters bounce around a surreal green cityscape without purpose, blurting out hardboiled dialogue straight from some lost Bogie picture, while flashing name-brand cell phones and swilling diet Pepsi. Sublime nonsense on an epic scale, this Spirit is headed to bad movie heaven.

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