I want to come clean. I am more or less the epitome of the target audience for Sin City. I have a cold, dead spot in my heart for noir. From the early classics like Out of the Past and Touch of Evil to later gems like Body Heat and Chinatown, I love movies about guys who drink booze for breakfast and girls who stab you in the heart for a buck and a dime. I live vicariously through Jim Thompson characters. I pray for cold days so I can wear my black coat and fedora. And last but not least, I’m a big fan of Frank Miller and Sin City, his hardboiled comic throwback to good old fashioned American noir.
When I read that Robert Rodriguez was doing Sin City, my reaction was ambivalent. I was excited about the big screen treatment, but I haven’t much cared about Robert’s endeavors since From Dusk ‘Till Dawn. Unfortunately, it’s been about a decade since I turned twelve, and I wasn’t rattled about Spy Kids 3D like I’m sure the rest of you were. But then the teaser footage came out and my reservations were mostly put to rest. I thought if anybody is going to screw up Sin City, Robert has my blessing to do so. The trailers were even more of a cock tease. My anticipation grew exponentially as I read about Rodriguez’s determination to translate, not adapt. I read about how he had to win over Frank Miller with test footage, and that he dropped out of the director’s guild to bring Frank on as a co-director. Could this maverick Mexican in a cowboy hat be the first to not defecate on Frank Miller’s work? As hard as I shook my magic eight ball, all signs kept pointing to yes.
Frank Miller’s Sin City is based on a series of comics he wrote and drew for Dark Horse between 1991 and 1999. The film is split up into three episodes based on arcs from the original Sin City, The Big Fat Kill, and That Yellow Bastard. In That Yellow Bastard, Bruce Willis plays Hartigan, an honest cop on his last day before retirement who compromises his safety to save a little girl from a serial rapist killer, wonderfully played by a very fiendish Nick Stahl. In the original Sin City episode and my personal favorite of the three, Mickey Rourke plays Marv, a veteran with a face reminiscent of ground beef who becomes obsessed with avenging the death of a hooker he falls in love with during a passionate one night stand. Clive Owen vehicles The Big Fat Kill as Dwight, a loose cannon with a weakness for damsels in distress. The truce between hookers and cops is broken when a hooker unknowingly kills a cop, and Dwight steps in to help stop a war from breaking out. The stories blend so seamlessly that you hardly notice the story shifts because each episode is so incredibly strong that no part stands out as being relatively weak, which can hurt an episodic film. It’s also due to the on-screen power of the one main character each story shares. While there are plenty of great performances in the film, the star of the picture is Sin City. It is a living, breathing character that grabs you by the balls in the first frame and squeezes the shit out of them until the credits roll. This character needs no introduction, because you already know Sin City. Every dirty thought that has ever crossed your mind and every violent fantasy you’ve doodled in your Math book exists somewhere in this town.
That being said, the rest of the cast is fantastic. Marv is a classic antihero, and the most likable character in the film. He’s a vicious masochist, and his uncanny ability to inflict pain and torture is matched only by his capacity to endure it. He is a hulking, indelible nightmare that refuses to die and never abandons the chase, so the poor bastard who gets on his shitlist shouldn’t even bother praying because even God knows better than to fuck with Marv. He is the proverbial bad ass, and he struts and smashes his way through Sin City with a level of ultra coolness deserves a fanboy medal of honor. College dorm rooms around the world now have someone other than Ash and Tony Montana to adorn their walls with. Speaking of bad asses, Clive Owen proves again why he is one of the best actors alive. His pitch-perfect noir performance should come as no surprise to fans of Croupier, but he managed to surprise me anyway with subdued, nuanced acting that is nothing short of superb. Dwight is an enigmatic character. There is a calm ferocity in his eyes that seizes you; it makes you hold your breath and wonder just what the hell is bouncing around inside this guy’s head. His motives are not always obvious and his thoughts are often ambiguous, which simply makes him a mysterious joy to watch. Willis turns in a wonderfully tragic performance. Del Toro is delightfully slimy. Elijah Wood totally captures the subtly terrifying and intensely creepy persona of his character. Nick Stahl proves he knows how to play a bad guy, and reaffirms my belief that he is one of the best young actors around. And the women of Sin City…my god. They are the hormone-fueled product of every perverted, masturbatory teenage fantasy you’ve ever had. Jessica Alba has never been hotter. Rosario Dawson kicks all kinds of ass and looks criminally good doing it. Carla Gugino as Lucille is the highlight for me. I wanted to jump on screen and pounce on her. Curvy, voluptuous, full-bodied; she is a sculpture of a woman and beyond perfect for the part. I bet Frank Miller had to go to the bathroom and pop off a load when he saw her next to his original drawings. The dialogue is not realistic, as it shouldn’t be. The lines are sharp and witty and will put a wry smile on your face if you don’t laugh out loud. The characters are deep, distinct, memorable, and larger than life. You will love them.
The look and feel of this film alone makes it worth watching. The stark, crisp, black and white imagery immediately pulls you into the darkly beautiful world of rampant depravity and glorified decay. The photography and production design is executed in such a way that your eyes will constantly wander the screen, soaking in every gorgeous detail. And hear me well when I say this film is fucking brutal. Fear not, loyal readers, as Sin City is plenty bloody and downright disgusting. From faces being put through brick walls to meditated dismemberment, I can’t count the number of times I shouted “holy shit!” and/or grinned with sadistic pleasure. Only the strong survive Sin City, and those who don’t, well, God help them. This film is not for the kiddies. The CGI is skillfully done and blends in well for the most part. My only gripe here is sometimes the cars looked a little too weightless, and there were a few shots with an obviously CG Marv. All in all, this film thoroughly captures the visual aesthetic of the comic, and actually transcends it by fully realizing the advantages that cinema has over the page.
One of my tests for a great film is this: does it make you feel like you could enter the universe, walk down the street from the story being told, and stumble into another tale just as compelling? Need I mention Sin City passes? The movie is as immersive as any film can possibly be. The world of Sin City is so dynamic and alive that I wondered what was happening off screen with almost as much enthusiasm as what I was treated to on screen. The acting, cinematography, and art direction brings to life a fictional world with such conviction that for a few hours, the screen becomes a window to an existing alternate universe.
Sin City is perfect, inspired filmmaking. Everyone who touched this film is in love with movies and loves making movies. Sin City is everything a movie should be. It is dark, sexy, funny, violent, and smart. It is escapism, and it is art. It delivers on every level. It will spawn a series of imitators and wannabes. It will become a cult classic and film school curriculum. Frank Miller’s Sin City is a masterpiece.