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‘The Spirit’ moved him

No comic-book creator has seen his work brought to the screen with more reverence than Frank Miller, whose ultra-violent graphic novels “300" and “Sin City” were adapted to film practically panel by panel. “It is very strange,” Miller said, “to draw something and then have it come alive in front of you. You start to feel like a low-rent god, but, in my case, one with major feet of clay. . . . “

This minor deity, who favors fedoras and Winston cigarettes, is now attempting a new type of Hollywood trick and it starts on Christmas Day, no less; that’s the release date of “The Spirit,” the superhero film that Miller hopes will complete his unlikely transformation from comic-book artist to successful movie director, a career path that did not seem possible even at the start of this decade. “The Dark Knight” and “Iron Man” may have racked up historic box-office numbers this summer, but if Miller succeeds with this particular pop-culture leap, it will be the most dramatic proof that comics have become hard-wired into the circuitry of Hollywood.

Interestingly, Miller, the most important comic-book artist of the last 25 years, chose to make his solo directorial debut with somebody else’s superhero, and a relatively obscure and vintage one at that. The Spirit was created in 1940 by the late, great Will Eisner, a beloved figure in comics who brought a cinematic flair to his drawing board that influenced several generations. No one admired Eisner more than Miller -- in 2005, shortly after Eisner’s death, the book “Eisner/Miller” hit shelves with 350 pages of collected conversation between the artists as a sort of comic-book sector version of the landmark 1967 film book “Hitchcock/Truffaut.”

“I adored Will Eisner and took a real ‘Don’t tread on me’ approach when I came to this movie. At the same time I was willing to tread all over it. I knew Will always wanted to do something fresh and new, not some stodgy old thing that aspires to be revered. I don’t want anybody to bow to this movie. I want a ripping good yarn. It is not an antique.”

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The film is certainly of-the-moment with its “digital back lot” approach -- it was filmed against a green screen at a production complex in New Mexico and the backgrounds and settings were added well after the acting was done. With its dramatic use of color, stylized grit and dream-time physics, it will remind some viewers of “Sin City,” the 2005 film co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Miller that served as the comic-book artist’s crash course in filmmaking. Unlike that film, however, “The Spirit” is laced with a fedora romance and screwball comedy sensibility that makes it a digitalized kindred soul to “Dick Tracy,” Warren Beatty’s 1990 film.

“It’s very different than the look and feel of ‘Sin City’ and ‘300' because the source material is so different,” Miller said earlier this year while taking a break from his labors at the Orphanage, a postproduction facility in San Francisco’s Presidio. “ ‘The Spirit’ is its own, full-color world.”

“The Spirit” stars Gabriel Macht as the title character who starts the film as an ambitious rookie cop named Denny Colt before he dons his domino mask. The young cop is murdered but then apparently comes back from the dead -- even he’s not sure how or why, but he learns that the sinister crime lord called the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) has the answers he needs. The villain, meanwhile, wants to get his hands on the mystery man to exploit his back-from-the-grave ability. Some of the contours of the film are different than the old comics -- the Octopus was never even shown in the old days (he was just a pair of gloves in Eisner’s panels) and Colt comes “back from the dead” with something close to invulnerability as well as with a sort of pheromone boost that makes women swoon. “The old Eisner comics were loaded with romance, beautiful and dangerous women, and that was a way to explain the sparks flying between the Spirit and every woman he meets,” Miller explained.

Miller has a cast stacked with high-glamour actresses: Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, Jaime King and Paz Vega all play beautiful women with bad intentions, while Sarah Paulson is the Spirit’s frazzled girlfriend, Ellen Dolan, the proto-feminist daughter of the city police commissioner who has to contend with all the people who want to get their hands on the Spirit -- whether it’s to punch him or kiss him. Another update: Spirit’s girlfriend is now a surgeon, a career Miller says is a meld of nurturing heart and brainy realism.

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The biggest differences between “The Spirit” and “Sin City” or “300" are the romances and the cartoon combat; the Spirit and Octopus both have a sort of Wile E. Coyote invincibility by the time they duke it out and they whack each other with cinder blocks, spanner wrenches and even a toilet with a jolly unreality that makes the film seem something like “The Mask” meets “Green Hornet.” Jackson said it was a giddy time on the set filming the escalating mayhem.

“There are some great scenes where we just go at it,” Jackson said, although he added that Miller found a way to keep the loopy universe true to itself. “Frank knew what he wanted to do. You look at this movie and you can tell it’s his. Nobody else would make this movie this way, which is why he’s doing movies now.”

That may be a bit of a sore spot, though. Eisner’s humanistic and often gentle, Capra-like approach to his character has many comics fans wondering why Miller -- famous for spilling vats of blood-red ink in his comics -- is taking the old man’s winking Spirit into a Sin City. Miller welcomes all that.

“I’m sure when this movie comes out it will stir up a fiery debate . . .,” the artist-turned-auteur said. “People have been loving the way comic books have been reaching the screen, but I don’t like when everybody drinks the Kool-Aid. I like to shake things up and tell the story the best way possible. And I can tell you firsthand, that’s what Will Eisner liked too.”

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Boucher is a Times staff writer.

geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Coming alive

“The Spirit” blends very modern moviemaking (it was filmed on a “virtual back lot” against green screen, a la “Sin City”) with a vintage hero (the title character first appeared in 1940) and two very different creative forces: Frank Miller, the creator of the bloody graphic novel “300" among many others, and the late Will Eisner, whose Spirit was romantic, funny and often gentle. Here’s a look at some of Miller’s cast and the characters they play.

GABRIEL MACHT

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The Spirit: Macht (“Behind Enemy Lines”) is Denny Colt, who “dies” in the eyes of the world and then puts on the domino mask, fedora and dark suit to become the two-fisted mystery man known as the Spirit. Never heard of him? Eisner’s hero was featured in comic-book inserts in newspapers in the 1940s and never cut through like Batman. The Spirit is a man of the people, not some man of steel -- so he gets beat up a lot.

SCARLETT JOHANSSON

Silken Floss: Johansson is the curvy Floss, one of the many femmes fatales who inhabit Central City. In the old comics she was physicist and a surgeon but Johansson’s Floss is the brilliant, cold and calculating accomplice of a crime boss called the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) -- and his match when it comes to ruthlessness.

SARAH PAULSON

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Ellen Dolan: Paulson (“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”) plays Dolan, a woman with a heart of gold in a town full of ruthless gold diggers. She is the daughter of Police Commissioner Dolan and, just like the old days in Eisner’s comics, she is smart and tough, but Miller decided she needed an M.D. too. She’s a surgeon, a career Miller saw as a blend of nurturing soul and worldly realism.


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