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Originally published Thursday, December 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"The Spirit": Weak plot, visual kapow

"The Spirit," Frank Miller's visually dazzling comic-book adaptation about an enigmatic crime fighter (Gabriel Macht), captures much of what's great in comics, even if the script sometimes plods.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

"The Spirit," with Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Paz Vega, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson. Written and directed by Frank Miller, based on the comic-book series by Will Eisner. 108 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of stylized violence and action, some sexual content and brief nudity. Several theaters.

Writer Alan Moore, who created the art and words for such movies as "V for Vendetta," "From Hell" and the upcoming "Watchmen," once said that "graphic novel" is just another name for "expensive comic book." That's a fair description of "The Spirit," which shines with arty gloss while still delivering the cred of a pulpy comic book.

The story and character come from an iconic series created by comic-book (and graphic-novel) pioneer Will Eisner in 1940. Most modern comic writer/ artists consider Eisner a hero, and none more so than Frank Miller — creator of "300" and many other contemporary comic classics — who adapted and directed "The Spirit" with as much authenticity as digital technology can deliver in 2008.

Miller has rendered the world of "The Spirit" with a graphical style that borders on the fetishistic, occasionally delivering the most effective live-action realization of comic-book art yet seen. His translation of story to screen is somewhat less successful.

The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) is an enigmatic crime fighter and raffish lady's man who haunts the rooftops, alleys, streetscapes and villainous lairs of Central City, USA. A bond of immortality links him to a wisecracking archenemy, The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), and the two trade apocalyptic volleys of body blows in their quest for domination. There's an underlying plot involving Greek mythology, the Golden Fleece and the magical blood of Heracles, but the real meat is the stylized violence, visual bombast and giddy delight of Jackson tearing around with maniacal glee.

A good part of the dazzling scenery is devoted to the Spirit's parade of romantic foils, including Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), Dr. Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson), Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega), Office Morgenstern (Stana Katic) and Lorelei Rox (Jaime King) — all of whom are as eye-popping as their backdrops.

This is Miller's second movie after co-directing "Sin City" with Robert Rodriguez (based on Miller's comic), but in spite of the jacked-up style, "The Spirit" is not nearly as lively. The script often plods through sequences of clunky dramatic structure. Comic art may be inherently cinematic, but there's still some ink separating panels on a page from flickers on a screen.

Ted Fry: tedfry@hotmail.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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