SIN CITY -- Having spent the past couple of nights in Frank Miller's world, I can report that the place looks sensational bathed in digital Blu.
Miller, of course, is the graphic novel godfather whose "Batman: The Dark Night Returns" series popularized the gloomy, brooding superhero genre back in 1986.
Miller's original employer, Marvel Comics, gave superheroes pimples and personal problems back in the 1960s, but this bleak tale of the Caped Crusader in middle age rewrote the rules that said comics were for kids and mouth-breathers.
Miller applied hard-boiled fiction, existentialism and the visual techniques of film noir to his story panels, dragging goofy old Batman into the post-modern era. Adults who loved comics as kids returned as consumers of pricey "graphic novels."
Miller's mentor, WIll Eisner, had created one of the first widely admired graphic novels in 1978 with "A Contract With God." "The effect on me and others like me was tremendous," Miller says today.
Out of that respect and friendship comes the movie "The Spirit," based on Eisner's half-dead cop character, who dates back to the 1940s.
The late-2008 "Spirit" film came three years after Miller's wildly successful "Sin City," a stylistically similar adaptation of his comic book series. Expectations for "The Spirit" were high. They weren't met. The critics and fan boys were brutal.
The New York Times' A. O. Scott called it "a talky, pretentious stew of film noir poses and crime-fighter clichés." Uncharitable, since that applies to so many dramatic films out there, not just this campy exercise -- but true enough. "The Spirit," alas, is practically DOA, a mere shadow of "Sin City."
Still, this is Frank Miller's work. "The Spirit" has enough visual firepower and churning oddities to make it worth a spin, at least if you're interested in Miller or what's going on on the cutting edge of green-screen filmmaking.
Lionsgate has released "The Spirit" on Blu-ray and DVD. The high-definition presentation is reason alone to watch -- it flirts with reference quality. Clear and crisp. The DTS HD Master Audio sprawls across eight channels, bullets flying everywhere.
Extras cover the history of the Spirit character and creator Eisner. Miller and the mentor shared a love of Manhattan and "sexy saucy women."
Was Miller walking on thin ice while messing with Eisner's famous character? "No, I'm stomping through the ice with big-soled boots," Miller says in one featurette. "Just like he would have done."
Miller does the commentary with his producer. They sound out of their element. Miller was a lot more interesting paired with his "Sin City" collaborator Robert Rodriguez.
The graphic novelist sits for a video interview on a Manhattan rooftop, "Miller on Miller." He chats about his career, his aesthetic and his city, Manhattan. It's a far better choice than the commentary. There's also an alternate ending that would have pooched the PG-13 rating. The Blu-ray also comes with a bonus digital-download disc.
"The Spirit" uses the same mix of live action and graphic-novel visuals found in "Sin City" and "300." This time around, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson and Eva Mendes join star Gabriel Macht in front of the green screen. Louis Lombardi plays three identical henchmen, relatives of Uncle Fester, apparently, setting up some weird visual jokes and much-needed comic relief.
Armed with a fedora, red sneakers and cool tie, the Spirit chases after villains the Octopus (Jackson) and Sand Saref (Mendes) -- as well as anyone in a skirt. Miller's Spirit has the ability to heal himself from practically any injury, a new power that enables him to take savage beatings while enjoying Jackson's familiar rants.
Instead of Miller's signature rain from "Sin City," we get non-stop snow. Perfect for this cold movie, full of technique but lacking a tell-tale heart.
Blacks, whites and grays seem to have endless variations. The blacks, as Miller points out, always have visual content behind them, no matter how subtle -- the HD allows this technique to show through while retaining a dramatic high contrast. When spot colors break through, they have plenty of 3-D pop. The letterbox provides an appropriately artistic frame for the 1.85:1 images.
The DTS HD Master Audio track pounds away in action sequences and delivers the sighs and whispers of Miller's noir city in quieter moments. The music rocks, especially the monster guitar riffs played over the menus.
The theatrical version of "Sin City" comes on one disc with the "Recut, Extended and Unrated" version on the other. This replicates the exceptional special-edition DVD release of 2005, but does not include the "Hard Goodbye" comic insert.
"Sin City" remains a hell of a movie entertainment, full of adrenaline, gore and sleeze. Watching it in chapters (on the second disc) yields a linear experience, enhanced with new footage, although the theatrical cut clearly is the movie of choice.
Other than those Blu-ray exclusives, the extras are imports from the previous two DVDs. Co-director Rodriguez and Miller share a commentary track that pretty much confirms the veteran indie director was the man in charge on the project.
They describe how Rodriguez sold the project to a wary Miller. "He just didn't want 'Sin City' turned into a movie -- but I had something to show him," the director says. That was the completed opening sequence with Josh Hartnett, demoed for an unsuspecting Miller on a laptop in a New York bar.
Rodriguez dominates the second tech-oriented commentary track, although Quentin Tarantino pops up as a "guest director" and star Bruce Willis makes a flyby.
The talk covers how Rodriguez "transcribed" Miller's comics work to the screen. Everything came together in the computer. Mickey Rourke and Elijah Wood never even met, he says, although they did an elaborate fight sequence.
Rodriguez heaps praise on star Rourke, saying: "He's a true tortured soul."
Rodriguez also offers his patented "15 Minute Film School" and a Tex-Mex cooking lesson, both continuations from other DVDs.
Screen & Stream is the new home of DVD Spin Doctor, which has merged with Download Movies 101 at the new site. Please visit Screen & Stream for Blu-ray & DVD reviews -- as well as online video news -- written by bleary-eyed L.A. entertainment writer Glenn Abel.