Sin City


Jessica Alba as Nancy Callahan
Rosario Dawson as Gail
Benicio Del Toro as Jack Rafferty
Michael Clark Duncan as Manute
Carla Gugino as Lucille
Josh Hartnett as The Salesman
Michael Madsen as Bob
Jaime King as Goldie/Wendy
Brittany Murphy as Shellie
Clive Owen as Dwight
Mickey Rourke as Marv
Nick Stahl as Junior/Yellow Bastard
Marley Shelton as The Customer
Bruce Willis as John Hartigan
Elijah Wood as Kevin

In dark, grimy Basin City, crime and depravity are a way of life, and even the decent residents of the city have to chip in once in a while just to get by. The story follows three men: Marv (Mickey Rourke), a sad, soulful, thug; Dwight, a murderer with a new face; and Hartigan, the town’s only good cop on the verge of retirement. They get drawn down into the underworld of Sin City trying to save the women they love – Goldie (Jaime King), Gail (Rosario Dawson), and Nancy (Jessica Alba).

Sin City is the most exact adaptation of a comic book ever put on film. It’s not one hundred percent the same, but it is as close as anyone is ever likely to come. Frank Miller’s Sin City comic stories are a loving homage to the Mickey Spillane variety of pulp crime novels, and a showcase for the chiaroscuro technique and brilliant use of negative space that he had experimented with for years in the pages of Daredevil and Batman. Co-director Robert Rodriguez has taken three of Miller’s stories and used the panels as the storyboards for the film adaptation, almost without alteration. The result is a mélange of film noir and the pulpiest of pulp crime novels into a new and extremely stylish piece of crime drama that is relentlessly entertaining.

Miller’s potent black humor translates easily to the screen and lifts the often grim subject matter, keeping the film entertaining through the darkest of landscapes. And it does get extremely dark – figuratively and literally. Sin City is a world of shadows, captured in beautiful black and white digital photography, where the sun never seems to rise. Rodriguez and Miller delight in sending their heroes into labyrinthine hells almost beyond imagining. It would be depressing if it weren’t so much fun.

Into this frenzied mix, Rodriguez has brought his own visual talents to create one of the most stylized films in years. He follows Miller’s panels in lighting and composition, but adds his own sense of timing and splashes of color to create something new – call it film noir peint. It’s Rodriguez strongest and most assured film since From Dusk Till Dawn. Quentin Tarantino steps in to guest direct a tense car sequence where dead Jack Rafferty becomes the voice of Dwight’s nagging self-doubt.

A film that reaches for the pulpy heights that Sin City does lives and dies on its performances. Fortunately, Sin City’s cast performs beautifully. It works because the actors play it completely straight. No matter how strange the situation or dialogue – and the situations get strange pretty quick – they never let on that it’s anything other than life as usual in Basin City. Of special note is Mickey Rourke as Marv. Despite being layered under prosthetics to emulate Marv’s distinctive face, Rourke captures Marv’s brutish terror and soulful humanity. It’s a powerful performance, and in some ways it’s unfortunate that his is the first story; it gives everyone else a lot to live up to. For the most part, they do. Clive Owen brings a dry sense of humor to Dwight that plays well against the desperate circumstances he finds himself in. And Bruce Willis, in hindsight, seems destined to play a hard-boiled noir detective. The supporting cast is just as powerful, making the most of their short screen time. Elijah Wood is the definition of creepy as mute cannibal Kevin.

The only weaknesses in the film, ironically, come from the same place its strengths do – the fact that it’s a direct adaptation of the comic. Comics and film, though similar, are still two different mediums and there are some things that don’t translate from one to the other well. Some of the compositions, while fine on a comic page, look squashed and unattractive on screen. Timing is another occasional problem. The eye can take in the art and dialogue in a panel and make things seem to be happening simultaneously that really aren’t. There’s a gag involving Clive Owen, Benicio Del Toro, and a jammed gun barrel, which works fine on the page, but seems stiff and forced on screen.

All of the dialogue comes directly from the comic as well, with no additions or alterations. This is normally the strength of the film, but there are some things that are easy to read off a page, but impossible to say with conviction. Michael Madsen in particular comes across as if he’s reading off of cue cards, and some of Clive Owen’s voice over falls completely flat.

The biggest problem is Rodriguez choice to shoot from the panels and only from the panels. Most of the time it works, but occasionally – such as during action sequences – more is needed to make the moment work. In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud said that the real work of reading comics is done in between the panels, where the mind fills in what’s not there, creating motion and life where there is none. Films don’t have that luxury, and some complex sequences – Marv’s fight with police officers at Kevin’s farm and Dwight’s battle with IRA gunmen – could have used a few more panels to make them flow better.

All in all though, these are pretty minor problems, and the film itself drives right over them without ever slowing down.

Sin City is a lot of things, but most of all, it’s fun. It may not be for everyone, but everyone should see it once anyway, just to find out if it’s for them.

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Weekend: Aug. 22, 2019, Aug. 25, 2019

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