This is what "Sin City" would have looked like without the restraining hand of co-director Robert Rodriguez behind the camera. And "300," shorn of Zack Snyder's reality? It might have had the same expressionist flourishes, the loony, loopy excesses of "The Spirit," aka Frank Miller run amok.
Miller, the father of modern dark comic books and their graphic-novel offspring, steps behind the camera for this homage/adaptation of the comic book by the grandfather of comic noir, Will Eisner. Miller has taken Eisner's grimly witty 1940s creation, a supernatural crime fighter who narrates like Sam Spade, and concocted a daft and dazzling send-up of "dark" comic-book adaptations.
Whether Miller meant to pay tribute or set out to mock, the result is sure to be a fanboy's dream. The rest of us? We'll get the jokes, the hard-boiled Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett dialogue, the beautiful graphic-novel images, Samuel L. Jackson at his most Jacksonian.
But talk about empty-headed.
In the lingering darkness and the snow globe flurries of The City, The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) fights crimes and takes his lumps. His stab wounds heal quickly. Bullet wounds? Even faster.
It's a city of mean streets and mean people, of dames and Studebakers and Fokker Tri-motors, but also of cell phones and TV news crews, a place where The Spirit lives to chase his nemesis, The Octopus (Jackson), where the police commissioner (Dan Lauria) lives to gripe about the cops who get hurt along the way.
"You're going through my men like toilet paper."
There's a good-girl doctor (Sarah Paulson) who patches our boy up and falls under his spell, and the dame who broke his heart - Sand Saref, played by Eva Mendes.
The Octopus trades barbs with his assistant, vamped by Scarlett Johansson, waxing lyrical on his love of eggs, how he hates getting "egg on my face." He clones lumpy, dimwitted and easily killable henchmen, whom he gives T-shirts with the names "Pathos," "Ethos" and, when those are used up, "Huevos" and "Rancheros."
Eisner enjoyed playing with language, something Miller, whose "Sin City" seems spawned by "The Spirit," shares. Unadulterated Miller is like comic-book David Mamet, ripping the competition for fanboy fealty.
Shot on that "Sin City"/"300" computer-generated set, it's not a place for an expansive story or subtle acting. But everybody looks gorgeous in this dark, funny cartoon of an action movie.
Which is to say, this is colorful. This is wild and kind of funny. This is adventurous, even. But don't try this again.