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Mean Streets


Sin City

Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, USA, 2005

Rating: 3.8


Posted: April 2, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

The triumph of graphic design that is Sin City, the movie -- co-directed, "shot and cut" by Spy Kids maestro Robert Rodriguez -- is a remarkably faithful "translation" of four stories lifted from Frank Miller's comics of the same name. Indeed, so many shots and lines of dialogue are lifted directly from the source material that one imagines Rodriguez passing around Sin City trade paperbacks as shooting scripts, and ripping out pages to use as storyboards.

Visually, the end result is arresting, steeped in stylized black-and-white enlivened by occasional intrusions of color: eyes suddenly shine brilliant blue or emerald green; evening gowns, luscious lips, police sirens, heart-shaped beds, ratty old sneakers and (yes) rivulets of blood are aglow in moody crimson. As in the comics, these swatches of color appear primarily because they look cool, and secondarily to add shading to the (often far more effective) contrast of blacks and whites: a bruiser's many bandages break up the shadows like fireflies in the night; striking white silhouettes stand against dark backdrops. (It's always night in Sin City.)

It doesn't take a genius to get that the visual motif is one giant, unsubtle brush stroke underlining the stark moral landscape of Sin City, a town built on the pulpy foundations of old EC horror and crime comics (with their lurid violence and abrupt endings -- there are no denouements or epilogues in Sin City) and assembly-line paperbacks of the Mickey Spillane variety. In Sin City, the men are scarred (both physically and otherwise) loners adhering to strict (if unusual) moral codes; the women are gorgeous (or, in the case of Rosario Dawson and Jaime King, close enough) Madonna/whore hybrids who serve mainly to spur the men on in their testosterone-drenched heroic quests, which necessarily entail not just the gunfights and fistfights of classic noir but a grisly (yet sanitized) parade of decapitations, severed limbs, stabbings, cannibalism, castrations and torture.

In the first (and last) of those quests, taken from the Sin City tale That Yellow Bastard, hard-headed cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis) -- on his last day on the job, no less -- saves a little girl named Nancy from the deprivations of a privileged, pedophiliac son (Nick Stahl) of a senator, only to be betrayed by his own partner and sent to jail for the molester's crimes. Freed eight years later, he again has to save Nancy -- now all grown up and a pole-dancer with the lithe body and little-girl smile of Jessica Alba -- from her grotesque bogeyman, now a putrid Gollum of a man with skin the color of urine and the face of a Ferengi from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

In the second (and most satisfying), taken from Miller's original, eponymous Sin City tale (later renamed The Hard Goodbye), Mickey Rourke turns in an unexpectedly shaded performance as Marv, a disfigured thug framed for the murder of Goldie (King), who has just given him the one-night-stand of his miserable life. Marv's single-minded quest for revenge, which pits him against a powerful cardinal (Rutger Hauer) and his silent-but-deadly cannibal charge (Elijah Wood) -- not to mention the entire Basin City police force and a cadre of hookers -- comes as close as Sin City gets to poignancy. Rourke's doomed lug is tender in the right places, and delivers his handful of humorous lines without throwing the film off-balance.

The third (and least satisfying) segment, from The Big Fat Kill, concerns Dwight (Clive Owen, taking the role a little too seriously), a killer running from his past, who ends up helping the Valkyrie prostitutes of the city's "Old Town" district avert an all-out war; the hookers enjoy a self-policing autonomy until their murder of an out-of-control psychopath (a hammy Benicio del Toro, channeling all the worst parts of Marlon Brando) threatens to shatter the truce that keeps the cops and organized crime out of their business. This segment (including a scene between Owen and a dead del Toro, "guest-directed" by Quentin Tarantino) is connected to the rest of the film by the most tenuous of threads, and feels more like filler than anything else. (A framing device, based on the Miller short story "The Customer is Always Right," too neatly attempts to wrap this tale into the continuity of the others, with limited success.)

From the very first minutes of that opening framing sequence, it's abundantly clear that Sin City takes place in its own world, with its own laws, and as with any genre work, your enjoyment depends upon how well you're able to immerse yourself in this world. For some, that could take a little work -- Sin City's high-noir rhythms take a bit of getting used to. Early on, Michael Madsen, as Hartigan's deceitful partner, delivers such flat line readings ("You got a bum ticker") that audiences would be forgiven for thinking they've wandered into a so-bad-it's-good camp spectacle.

Sin City, then -- the movie and the series of comics -- isn't a thoughtful examination of noir themes and archetypes; it's a gleeful (and often twisted) celebration of those elements for their own sake, an explosion of just about every well-worn trope the genre has ever produced. Its moral relativism (killing a lot of people is presented as the answer to just about every dilemma, even if the people are relatively innocent, like del Toro's toadying sidekicks or some of the hired thugs Marv dispatches on his quest for revenge) is unsettling, as are its matter-of-fact treatment of brutal violence and fetishistic treatment of women. (The same, it must be said, is true of Miller's comics, which I can't quite refer to as "graphic novels" -- they're certainly graphic, but they're "novels" only in the most disposable-paperback sense of the term.)

But all those troubling things end up mattering less than they should, since they're all just elements of shading in a giant, life-sized cartoon. Sin City is a fun ride, and quite absorbing to look at. And it if ultimately fits the less-than-flattering interpretation of the adjective "comic-book movie" -- diverting while it's in front of you, but full of empty calories and soon forgotten -- it's no less engrossing, visually stunning and occasionally even moving for all of that.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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