A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, R, 124 mins.
Hartigan: Bruce Willis / Marv: Mickey Rourke / Nancy: Jessica Alba
/ Gail: Rosario Dawson / Jackie Boy: Benicio Del Toro / Dwight: Clive Owen
Kevin: Elijah Wood / Bob: Michael Madson / Junior/Yellow
Bastard: Nick Stahl / Manute: Michael Clarke Duncan /
Shellie: Brittany Murphy
IIf you thought that the roughnecks and lowlifes from PULP FICTION were nasty, then nothing, and I mean nothing, will really prepare you for the type of vile and pungent scum that Robert Rodriquez and Frank Miller dish out at us in SIN CITY. Their film is a cold, malevolent, harsh and ambivalently violent assault on our senses, and it may not be the best film going experiences for any ignorant cinematic tourists. Maybe not since Quentin Tarantino’s grim 1994 film has there been a work where the lines between the good and the bad are so narrowly drawn, and where the action and dark, twisted humor have the power to polarize and alienate viewers.
SIN CITY is a vicious and perpetually nasty piece of popcorn entertainment, but those words in a way do not at all do the film justice. It is, beyond all of its artifice, a shrewdly made comic book film noir, a masterpiece of dread, an uncompromising vision, an aesthetically astute visual tour de force, and easily the most faithful and ambitious comic book adaptations I have ever seen. This is truly one of the very best films of 2005 thus far.
SIN CITY is not a comic book film adaptation; it is a living, breathing comic book. Many have commented on the comparisons in terms of its tone and style to PULP FICTION, but those comparisons are slight and superficial at best. SIN CITY is like PULP FICTION with equal hits of extra adrenaline and pumped up testosterone. Not since Warren Beatty’s DICK TRACY has a film left me feeling like I truly inhabited a comic book universe. The genius of this work is that Robert Rodriguez did not just set out to take elements of Frank Miller’s graphic novels and adapt them to fit the aesthetic needs and conveniences of the cinema. Rather, Rodriguez stays absolutely faithful to the original vision of Miller’s black and white comic books, going as far as using the original comic panels as inspiration to compose the film’s shots.
I have personally read Miller’s SIN CITY graphic novels and I can most assuredly reveal that the film version is Miller’s vision come to life. This film deserves to placed on a high pedestal of works that exist primarily for audiences to drink in their visuals and inhabit the worlds that they present to them. Yes, the film is a crazy and congested hybrid of real life actors, lurid makeup, and a heavy preponderance of CGI special effects, but the more you watch SIN CITY the more you immerse yourself in its strange hyper-reality, very similarly to the world’s of STAR WARS, or most recently THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
Rodriguez is so faithful to Miller’s vision that he even managed to give him a co-director credit for the film. This is undoubtedly much deserved, as Rodriguez has commented that his own style for the film would not have been tangible without Miller’s. SIN CITY is one of the very few films to be made with what is being referred to as “digital backlot” filmmaking, where the only real elements are the actors which are filmed on huge green screen stages that are then later recreated with computer generated backgrounds and scenery.
This process was the basis for last year’s SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, but Rodriguez takes the step to a vivacious new level. Rather than conjuring up his own images on his own, he used Miller’s very comic panels and graphic narration to film the story. Some websites have been offering film frame to comic frame comparisons and the effect is miraculously seamless. Some of the film's imagery is so identical to Miller’s drawings that if you were to squint you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. This is precisely what separates SIN CITY from all other comic film adaptations – its complete reverence and acute attention to details of the source material. All other previous comic films seem pale in their level of faithfulness by comparison.
Not only is SIN CITY a major triumph as a comic book film, but it also stands up as one of the finest of the recent film noirs. This is a wonderfully conceived film with all of the necessary elements of noir: shady and dastardly villains, shaky and morally questionable heroes, busty blond vixens with those penetrating eyes, dark and desolate cinematography, and a story that plays like a nightmarish version of reality. We also get plenty of hard-boiled and simple-minded dialogue and a wonderfully conceived voice-over narration to help accentuate the on-screen proceedings. Yet, to those who are not well voiced in cinematic noir, the acting and dialogue may feel jilted and wooden, but that is precisely the point. The performances and writing are exercises in style just as much as the visuals. SIN CITY never takes pains to be realistic; this is a film about broad based archetypes, not personas that we can easily identify with. Like all great film noirs, SIN CITY is a film where we respond to how characters behave. The characters don’t exist to be watched, but rather felt.
Rodriguez and Miller wisely shot the film in black and white to authentically encapsulate the noir mood, but they also progress the look forward even more to immerse the audience even further. The film is shot with the same sort of basic aesthetic as the great noirs of the 40’s and 50’s, but the makers also use a modern, kinetic action style to their camera moves and editing. Also, they make great, yet sparse and subtle, use of vibrant color flashes in the film. Some are so well placed that they are virtuoso moments in their own right. Some of the more beautifully realized scenes include this selective use of color: an early moment in the film has a women’s dress highlighted in red which is followed by the green tint of her eyes, when fire blazes its in orange, and one particularity evil character actually has yellow skin.
Then there is also the blood, and this film is drenched in it (it wisely got an R rating). The film is excessively and chaotically violent, but it also is ironically not very realistic in his bloodletting. When the violence does occur it’s in a sort of highly stylized and frenzied manner (not too unlike comics themselves). Characters are able to hurtle themselves over and through cars without injury and are also capable of punching, kicking, and biting their way through enemies with relative ease. When the blood is shown it's kind of done tastefully and artistically, shown usually in bright whites, yellows, and occasionally red. The color effect gives SIN CITY that nice painterly feeling that the original graphic novels had.
As for the film’s plot itself (or should I say plots), SIN CITY is largely based on a series of graphic novels by Miller of the same name; the individual names for the various stories are THE HARD GOODBYE, THE BIG FAT KILL, THAT YELLOW BASTARD, and THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT. It is with the basic disjointed and intersecting stories that SIN CITY feels very much like PULP FICTION, but the individual stories themselves are much harsher, crueler, and more frantic than anything in that film. Miller and Rodriguez, like Tarantino, find great glee and delight in presenting us with the armpit of society in terms of characters, and SIN CITY is jam packed with a colorful and eclectic group of terrible villains and cunning heroic figures. The film, again like FICTION, tells three distinct stories, and it’s a real credit to Rodriguez and Miller in just how well-paced and involved the episodes. Just when you think that one has little to do with the other, subtle reveals are given to help tie up the loose ends. In terms of hipness, creativity, and inventiveness with its story, SIN CITY just may be the first film to be FICTION’s equal.
Yet, there is another creative element to the noir of the film. SIN CITY has the conventions of noir like that snappy voice-over with colorful colloquialisms like “dame” and “broad” and other usages of language that are more stylized than real. However, the film is a great hybrid piece, using a 40’s sensibility for its performances and décor (all of the cars seem to be right out of the period, as does the film’s mood), and the most obvious parallel to super heroes is evident in not only the appearance of the characters (some have ties and trench coats that flap in the breeze much like a hero’s cape), but many are also able to perform beyond-mortal acts, such as being able to hurl bodies several feet in the air or, in some characters’ cases, being shot seemingly dozens of times without dying. In actuality, the resiliency of some of the participants leads to some of the film’s more darker laughs, especially in one dreary moment when one complains that the first jolt of electricity while in the electric chair was far too light for a “man” like him.
In terms of the actors, Miller and Rodriguez have assembled a really impressive array of talent here. The film’s three stories center on three widely different male figures, and each one anchors their respective stories so that they can later weave together to form a cohesive whole. The first involves Bruce Willis as an old, grizzled cop that battles a horrendous pedophile, played with effective ooze by young Nick Stahl. Hartigan (Willis) is at the end of his career as a cop with a penchant for danger, but he agrees to bring finality to the case of this serial rapist, only with terrible repercussions for him.
Then there is the story of a burly and ugly Marv (played pitch-perfectly by Mickey Rourke) who manages to have one fantastic night with a blond goddess and later wakes up to find her dead. He is then subsequently framed for the crime. Being the more-than-avenging type, Marv engages in a personal vendetta to find her killer, which leads to a whacko named Kevin, who is played by Elijah Wood in a performance that is as creepy and unnerving as any done by a former Hobbit.
Finally, there is the story of Dwight (Clive Owen), a wanted man who teams himself up with, who else, the city’s tenacious prostitutes, when they kill a crocked cop, played by Benicio Del Toro. Del Toro’s murder, it seems, might be the final straw in the proverbial camel’s back that could threaten the truce between the mob, the police, and the hookers themselves. Dwight tries to hide the body, which also involves some really creepy moments, which involve him having a conversation with the “dead” Del Toro while driving to a dumping ground. This scene was “guest directed” by Quentin Tarantino himself, and is a small masterpiece of oddball and macabre tension. Underneath all of this insanity and corruption is something even more terrible, like a state senator and his deformed son, The Yellow Bastard, named because, well, he’s yellow, and is most certainly a devious bastard.
Miller and Rodriguez manage the stories with attention and, most importantly, discipline. This is not a film with a hastily developed narrative that jumps widely all over the map. SIN CITY, despite is hectic tone and exuberant style, feels like a film that was done with the right blend of energy and pace. Some of the film’s images lunge right off of the screen, whereas some of the quieter moments reveal a hidden restraint. This is one of those rare entertainments that achieves so much – it wows us with its feral artistic sensibilities, it engages us actively in its characters and story, and elicits a strong visceral reaction to its action. A film that is so depraved as SIN CITY has rarely been as pleasurable to watch.
SIN CITY is a film that is destined to live long after its initial release as a cult classic. It’s just such an all-encompassing vision. It’s a completely realized presentation of the conventions of the classic film noirs. It’s a brilliantly conceived amalgamation of computer wizardry and charismatic performances. It’s a vibrant and irrepressibly violent and hostile set of stories about terrible people you love to hate. More importantly, SIN CITY is the most flawless, dedicated and guileless comic book adaptation ever to come to the silver screen. It's no small feet when a film makes you feel like your actually turning the pages of Miller’s original graphic novel right up their on the big screen. Few adaptations have that sort of surreal and transcending power.
SIN CITY definitely has it.