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Sin City (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 01 April 2005
It’s a dazzling light show in black and white with touches of color; the white is intense and glowing, the black is crisp and deep, like well-printed illustrations. Unless you’ve been living in Madagascar, you probably already know that this is based on a series of graphic novels written and drawn by Frank Miller (who appears briefly in the movie as a corrupt priest). Instead of adapting the comic, Robert Rodriguez has reproduced it in living motion. He chose to be so faithful to the book that he enlisted Miller as the co-director, a decision that led to Rodriguez resigning from the Directors Guild of America.

“Sin City” is almost overwhelming; you’ve never seen any other movie that looks even remotely like this, and it can take a few minutes for your senses to get in tune with the intense, commanding style. Everything about the film is stylized—the look of the city (all tall buildings, dank alleys, towering black-and-white buildings), the look of the actors (several wear elaborate makeup), the language (Miller leaps off from film noir dialogue and lands in speech that’s intense, grim and sarcastic), the costumes, the music, the (scant) props. Even the cars are stylized; they come from a wide range of decades, some are recognizable makes and models, others are not—and almost all of them are convertibles.

It takes place entirely at night; the time frame can take a viewer aback—it requires a few moments thought to realize that the portion of the movie that stars Bruce Willis (he opens and closes the film) takes place before the other two storylines. (Willis was already a fan of Miller’s comics, and when Rodriguez approached him, he requested that more dialogue from the comics be used.) It doesn’t quite take place entirely in Sin City (we see a couple of times—on a cop’s badge, on a road sign, that it’s actually Basin City, but it’s really AllCity USA), but The Farm that several of our characters visit is anything but bucolic.

There’s no screenplay credit. The movie was based on three storylines from Miller’s long-running series, “The Hard Goodbye,” “The Big Fat Kill” and “The Yellow Bastard.” The latter begins the movie; Bruce Willis is tough—but dying—veteran cop Hartigan, about to retire. He’s given up trying to persuade his partner Bob (Michael Madsen) to help him in taking down murderous child molester Roark, Jr. (Nick Stahl). Junior is part of a family that controls this dark city. But Hartigan faces down Junior in a fusillade of bullets as he fights to save 11-year-old Nancy, Junior’s latest target. Each of the storylines is narrated by its central character.

“The Hard Goodbye” (there are no on-screen segment titles) begins as extremely tough guy Marv (Mickey Rourke) spends what for him is a once-in-a-lifetime night with a beautiful hooker, Goldie (Jamie King). She’s in color, and so is the large heart-shaped bed they use. When Marv wakes up later, she’s dead. He’s intensely ugly—his face looks like it was carved out of granite with a sledge hammer, and it just gets more messed up as time passes. (For a while, it’s covered with small Band-Aids.)
He’s nearly indestructible; he’s hit by cars a couple of times, he’s shot, he’s even clouted with a sledge. But he gets up with a snarling wisecrack and continues his heroic quest, taking the most attractive coats of successive targets, “killing my way to the truth.”

The third segment features Dwight (Clive Owen), a convicted killer with a new face but who knows he’s “a fingerprint away from” execution. He’s fond of Shellie (Brittany Murphy), a waitress who’s the only character to figure in all three stories. When she’s roughed up by brutal Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro with what looks like Stewart Granger’s nose), Dwight decides to take the guy down. This involves him with a passle of hookers—all gorgeous, all dressed in S&M leather and net stockings—led by Gail (Rosario Dawson), who was briefly Dwight’s lover. The hookers run Old Town; with the cooperation of cops, in the past they ran off the mob and the pimps, and now are an armed force that looks great but is very very tough. Something happens that gets more Roark soldiers involved, and involves dinosaur statues, a decapitated head (with a pistol barrel protruding from its forehead), tar pits, Irish killers and a great big hit man (Michael Clarke Duncan) with a brass eye.

Quentin Tarantino is listed as “special guest director.” He handled one scene, with Dwight and Jackie Boy in a car; it does look different from the rest of the film, with more color washes and more camera movement, but unless you’re aware that someone else helmed this sequence, you wouldn’t guess it from what you see.

“Sin City” looks like the wet dream of a bright fifteen-year-old boy—but that’s not a criticism. Movies can successfully be about almost anything, can take almost any approach, and that’s what Rodriguez and Miller are going for here. The characterizations are paper-thin, but extremely colorful; everyone’s quick with down-and-dirty wisecracks, everyone talks in stylized, bitten-off chunks of language. The movie is all of a piece: everything is intensely stylized, and the stylizations of the various elements mesh perfectly—it is what it is, from the tiniest element to the biggest.

All the women are gorgeous with huge, firm breasts, beautifully shaped buttocks and long, long legs. The adult Nancy (Jessica Alba) is intended to seem somehow more pure than anyone else—but she’s a stripper in a sleazy dive, doing an awesomely sinuous pole dance much of the time. She’s only pure by comparison with everyone else. Our heroes are those Raymond Chandler knights who down these mean streets must go—but two of them are killers, and one is a dying cop (Willis has a big X-shaped scar on his forehead—X marks the spot?). In this sleek, dark world, corruption is largely a matter of degree; even good-guy Willis is perfectly willing to kill. And the bad guys are quite awesomely bad; Kevin (Elijah Wood, a long way from Middle Earth) is a silent, acrobatic cannibal who mounts the heads of his women victims on the wall. He made one victim watch as he ate her dismembered hand. This hyped-up evil is perfectly in keeping with the hyped-up everything else in the movie.

Frank Miller has almost always been this intense, and almost always this simple. He regards violence as visual poetry, the more intense, the better. His stories don’t parade the violence—they ARE the violence. He doesn’t deal in the kind of ideas you can mull over after you finish the comic; everything’s right there in the open, accessible the first time through. There’s also a certain smugness to Miller’s work, as if he considered himself an artist before anyone else gave him that label. I’m a life-long comic book reader, and I burned out on the intensity of Miller’s work before he began the “Sin City” series. But I have immense respect for his dedication, his honesty and his brilliant artwork—he’s a much better artist than a writer. His compositions alone—perfectly captured in the movie—are genius level. (Other comic book fans should sit through the end credits; the very last ones may rouse warm memories.)

The movie is funnier than you might expect; Rourke in particular displays a dark, cynical humor throughout his scenes. The violence is very graphic—a lot of blood is tossed around—but because the movie is so stylized, it doesn’t have the shocking force of a more realistic approach. In the Clive Owen sequence, most of the blood is a glaring white rather than red, another effect from Miller’s art. Arms, legs and heads are lopped off, a Yellow Bastard is pummeled to death, but again, it’s all of a piece.

The acting is not as stylized as the visuals, though Nick Stahl’s character is as bizarre as any you’re likely to encounter. Mickey Rourke, even though his face is encased in latex, gives what may be his best performance. He’s actually LESS stylized than he often has been in the past, more contained, more controlled—and it works. Clive Owen seems more heroic and noble than he did in last year’s “King Arthur.” Benicio Del Toro is creepy and attractive as the corrupt Jackie Boy, clearly enjoying himself. It’s very good to see Rutger Hauer and Powers Boothe, excellent actors, back in a worthwhile movie, even though their roles here are not large.

Bruce Willis is actually pretty much like he usually is—but his usual character could have been invented by Frank Miller in the first place. But this is a good film for him to appear in; he often turns up in lower-budgeted, independent films, and deserves credit for it. He was just in the very Hollywood “Hostage;” “Sin City” is worth a hundred movies like that.

It’s not without its weaknesses. Didn’t Rodriguez and Miller notice that Madsen, De Toro and Rourke sound almost exactly alike? Also, the movie is too long, but this is more because the entire film is in the same mood and tone than due to the actual running time. Multiple-story movies usually try to mix up the approaches to the various episodes, but that’s not what happens here. It’s all very much alike, and you become a bit hungry for something that would be just a little different. Also, because it’s so stylized in all regards, it teeters precariously close to self-parody.

In a sense, it’s more instructive and reasonable to talk about Miller as the creator here than Robert Rodriguez, who was intent on recreating the graphic novels in movie form. Though the movie is visual dynamite, intense and exciting throughout, what I suspect will turn out to be its greatest feat is in how Rodriguez made it. The movie was shot with digital cameras with the actors working in front of green screens. Rodriguez shot it in his own “Troublemaker Pictures” studios in Austin, Texas, on a remarkably short schedule and on a stunningly low budget—a studio film like this would cost at least three times as much as Rodriguez spent. He made exactly the movie he wanted to, in exactly the way he wanted, and he did it without any input or interference from studio executives. This is largely because of his clear understanding of the digital media, and it’s a lesson that other rebellious filmmakers are sure to take to heart.

As for the rest of us—if you are not in tune with film noir styling (though no real film noir looked like this), if you do not like violence, if you want women who aren’t dames, hookers and tramps (and almost nothing else), do not see “Sin City.” But for those with a taste for the unusual, the vivid and the bold, this is your cup of molten lava.

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