Sin City

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SIN CITY is film noir on crystal meth. You can forget about hard boiled. SIN CITY eats the whole thing raw, spits out the flaky bits and grimaces with meaty bits still hanging from it's jowls. It's a guy's movie to be sure. Women, your men will love it and if you try to understand why, you'll only be frightened. Men, if your gal does love SIN CITY, hold onto her and don't let her go. Also, does she have a sister?

The film is based on Frank Miller's series of graphic novels. A lot of films are "based" on comics. But none so much as SIN CITY. Director Robert Rodriguez is fiercely loyal to his source material in a way that we have never seen. Most of the dialogue and even entire comic panels are reproduced onto the big screen. The film is so loyal, that Rodriguez demanded Frank Miller be given co-director credit and was often right there by Rodriguez's side. But don't worry, loyal or no, this is a very different-looking film and completely unique to anything we've seen in many years.

The film itself follows an anthology format and has more narrative threads than most films have cast members. Although there is a brief run-through of "The Customer Is Always Right" to set the mood, the film revolves around three separate stories and yes, now that you mention it, the structure does recall PULP FICTION.

The first major story was the first SIN CITY story, "The Big Goodbye." In it, we are introduced to a rough-looking customer named Marv (Mickey Rourke). He has a face that would stop a truck and looks like it has been used for just that purpose several times over. His face doesn't look formed so much as it does carved into granite. Nevertheless, he finds himself in the arms of a real beauty named Goldie (Jaime King). "She smells like angels oughta smell," Marv moons. He spends most of the story trying to find her murderer and avenge her death, all the while being framed for the whole thing himself.

Marv is not your typical gumshoe down on his luck. He is a throwback to caveman days. As one character says of him, "His only problem is that he was born in the wrong century." He is a warrior in a world where the only battlefields are the streets and back alleys. He has an ugly face and an ugly disposition, and has no qualms about hurting or killing people who deserve it. His shrink stopped treating him when she got too scared and even Marv fears that he may be losing his mind. Still, he has a sense of honor. He will not tolerate anyone who victimizes women, even though women typically cower from the very sight of him. In short, definitely the type of guy you want on your side. Marv's pursuit of Goldie's killer takes horrific turns as a truly depraved conspiracy unravels.

In one of my many bouts with acting, I took classes as a community theatre as a kid. This is the early nineties, when I was in my teens and the hottest actors at the time were Kevin Costner and Demi Moore. A pretty dark time for the craft, I'm afraid. Our acting coach, who had loads of professional experience certainly thought so. He announced to all of us, "Kevin Costner couldn't act his way out of tall grass." These were his exact words and I have stolen this very phrase many times. "If you want to see real, honest to God acting, you need to look at Mickey Rourke." Mickey Rourke? Many of the class thought the guy must be nuts. Most of us had not seen Rourke, but we knew he was a loudmouth boxer who did a few sleazy pics. All I had seen Rourke in at that point was Zalman King's WILD ORCHID. There were two reasons I kept watching that film in slow motion, and neither one of them was Mickey Rourke.

But my old coach was right. Rourke is an amazing actor, far better than most people give him credit for. He plays the ultimate noir detective in ANGEL HEART, a perverse and foul mouthed successor to Humphrey Bogart. RUMBLE FISH was a heartwrenching and complex role. YEAR OF THE DRAGON was a true oddity in that Rourke was the hero of the story, but as obvious bigot as well - no way the studios would touch that today. A PRAYER FOR THE DYING, BARFLY, JOHNNY HANDSOME - the list of great performances just keeps going, even into the mid-1990s when Rourke was criminally regulated to straight-to-video thrillers.

Thank God Rodriguez notes Rourke's talent. His supporting role in ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO was the best thing about the film. And in SIN CITY, Rourke gives one of the most amazing performances of his career. This is the type of thing icons are made of. Rourke's acting is frightening, saddening and truly beautiful. His character is a hulk of a man under intense makeup and yet he makes him into a sympathetic and unforgettable character. He succeeds so totally in his performance that its sure to be one of the best acting jobs anyone does all year, even if he likely won't be recognized for it by the powers that be.

It's also worth noting that Carla Gugino is pretty revelatory as well. A much more adult persona than her mom character from Rodriguez's SPY KIDS films, now I know why fans loved her on that short-lived KAREN SISCO show so much. "The Big Goodbye" is the one story in SIN CITY I could compare to the original, since it was the one I read. It's not easy to translate this tale to the big screen, even if you're lifting it directly from the page. Even harder to turn it into something so magnetic and powerful.

The second story is "The Big Fat Kill." Dwight (Clive Owen - CROUPIER, CLOSER) is spending the night with new girlfriend, Shellie (Brittany Murphy) when her abusive ex (Benecio Del Toro, also heavily made up) comes in. Despite managing to chase them out, Dwight follows them for fear of who they might hurt on their night of violence. This takes him into Old Town, where the prostitutes have their own ways of dealing with troublemakers.

There's been a lot of talk for many months whether Clive Owen is going to be the next James Bond? Frankly, I think this man may be too cool for Bond. Sure, I saw and loved the BMW films and thought he did an admirable job in the KING ARTHUR director's cut (never did see the theatrical PG-13 dungheap). But he and Natalie Portman stole the show in CLOSER and here, he's just intense as hell. I'm starting to really fall under the spell of his steely-eyed glare. Del Toro is a true artist in that he has no qualms about taking a hit in the billing, making himself up, or even playing characters most actors wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. This is why people remember Del Toro and don't give a rat's ass about the latest supermodel-turned-thespian.

The final story, with a bit of a tease after the opening credits is "The Yellow Bastard." Hardigan (Bruce Willis, in the type of part we like to see him in) is a real honorable sort. One of the few honest cops in Sin City, he takes down a child rapist and murderer just before his retirement. Unfortunately, the guy was connected and he is sent up the river. Years later, it's time to tie up loose ends. Willis is fantastic here as I mentioned. And yes, Jessica Alba is an astoundingly attractive presence.

I'm trying to be as vague as possible describing the storyline of SIN CITY, because to watch the tales unravel is a testament to the pure power of Miller's writing. Melodramatic in the extreme. Dialogue that would cause us to roll our eyes anywhere else seems perfectly at home here. I have commented on the acting power of most, but not all of the cast members. I have skipped many for time and also to save from any possible spoilers. Suffice to say, this is one of the best ensembles we've seen - most of them even more alluring than the cast of characters populating Tarantino's epic KILL BILL.

What I have not discussed is the filmmaking style. This is what most of the reviews have mentioned and some of them, all they have mentioned. Rodriguez filmed SIN CITY entirely in front of a green screen. All backgrounds, effects and color correction was added later on. It's similar, but not identical to the process used in last year's sadly overlooked SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW. Rodriguez has been romancing digital filmmaking for some time now with mixed results. He used them here and there across the first two SPY KIDS films. The third one, SPY KIDS 3-D was almost all computer enhanced, but it was also horrible - like a prolonged mid-90s amusement park ride rather than an actual film. He used Sony's hi-def digital film cameras on ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO with great success. Here, he seamlessly melds digital filmmaking and film art together as one.

The film is exhilarating to look at. The image is black and white with certain aspects enhanced with an unreal amount of color. The style is lifted directly from Miller's books. Although you might see a splash of red blood here and there, it typically looks as white as a blank page. Not sure I would have made the same choices, but there is no denying how effective they are. This is not a nostalgic use of black and white, this is re-writing the rules. The digital backgrounds and effects create a world that is so oddly familiar yet completely different, it is as bipolar as the denizens of Sin City themselves.

Another thing that you just have to dwell on is the brass-knuckled wallop it packs. It becomes increasingly clear early on that few people die of old age in Sin City. It is a place in which only the strong survive and all pretenders to the throne had better get out of dodge. This is the house Bronson and McQueen built. It's heaven for the likes of Walter Hill and John Milius. The film loves tough guys, but amplifies them to near-comical degrees. The heroes and villains of Sin City run on pure energy, all four cylinders, all night long. People take all sorts of damage. It may take several gunshots to actually kill a man, even if a couple of them land directly in his skull.

Already, SIN CITY is pissing off the moralists out there. Most of the reviews have been positive, but many negative reviews accuse the film of being violent and mean-spirited. Damn right, it is! This is a film that finds beauty on the ugly side of the street. I would say that critics who can't take it should get out of the game. But frankly, I have begun to fantasize about what it would be like to strap Michael Medved to a chair, glue his eyeballs open and force him to watch this film on a continuous loop.

Make no mistake, SIN CITY is extremely violent, another one of those films that dodges an "NC-17" rating for reasons difficult to fathom. After a while, I stopped counting the number of beheadings and castrations depicted in its dizzying 126 minute running time. If you're like me and you like violence done right, you've come to the right place. If you're a family values Bush supporter, you obviously only like violence when it takes place in a desert halfway around the world and should leave the art to those of us with opposable thumbs.

What is so staggering is that each story features a central character with a real sense of honor, skewed although it might be. Honor isn't valued too much in Sin City, but that's the point. Each tale gives birth to a new breed of warrior in a world whose values seem steeped in betrayal and decay. The film has very few morals in depicting a dystopian urban jungle.

It revels in its seediness and makes you feel all warm and fuzzy about an eye for an eye. It both celebrates and fears pure machismo, shining a light on the beautiful uglies and the ugly beautiful. SIN CITY is gritty, nasty and cold to the bone. But it is also quite daring, poetic and beautiful as well. Besides, I believe the almost nonexistent moral compass is part of what makes SIN CITY so fascinating. You may delight in many of the film's events, but if you aren't at least a little bit disturbed by them, you should probably seek professional help.

After years of waiting for THE great Robert Rodriguez film, it has finally arrived. I can only hope that the focus on the technique of the film and the film's intense depictions do not overshadow what is really a fascinating film. Yes, it's a technical marvel. But you have to look at why the technique was used - how it serves the parallel storylines. It's a beautiful thing to behold and a remarkable artistic achievement. It will be interesting to see what people think of this film five years from now, once the hype over the technique has died down. I expect it will still be loved by its fans and be recognized for not being not just a good experiment, but great cinema as well.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis