The Spirit

Starring Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, and Scarlett Johansson. Rated 14A.

In his first solo flight as a writer-director, graphic novelist Frank Miller uncannily captures the Zeitgeist in which Will Eisner's influential cartoon series The Spirit flourished after its debut in 1940. Miller's palette is even sparer than it was in Sin City (which he codirected with Robert Rodriguez), with colours now mostly limited to red, black, and white-same as the Nazi flag, as comes into the story to somewhat ridiculous effect when Samuel L. Jackson shows up in full SS regalia.

Sadly, this sense of campy randomness is pretty much what defines this update, starring bland Gabriel Macht as a good cop who, after biting it in the line of duty, is reanimated as a masked, hat-wearing, and generally unstoppable crime fighter. Roaming the city he loves, the Spirit makes special time for the ladies, particularly a devoted doctor (the equally bland Sarah Paulson) whose gruff police-chief father (The Wonder Years' Dan Lauria) looks out for our hard-to-kill hero.

He also has an unresolved thing for a childhood chum called Sand Saref, who shows up—embodied by Eva Mendes at her vampiest—in a contest with Jackson's archvillain, the Octopus, who shares his secret of semi-immortality. While Jackson hams it up with his own special brand of cackling fury, everyone else delivers lines as if this were a parody of bad '40s radio. The effect is enervating in the mouth of Scarlett Johansson, who is laughably out of place as the Octopus's deadpan assistant.

With enemies who can't be defeated and yet spend most of the movie pounding away at one another, and subplots that generate little excitement, the movie depends on elaborate noir-with-cellphones design to keep viewers engaged. Its art-directed flesh may be willing, but The Spirit is weak.