Sin City (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Sin City is the most visually inventive comic book adaptation to make its way to a movie screen. While other directors have attempted to remain faithful to the look and "feel" of their source material, Robert Rodriguez has taken things a step further, by using Frank Miller's graphic novels as storyboards and immersing the audience neck-deep in the noir currents of Miller's den of iniquity. It's easy to get lost in Sin City. There's something to appreciate around every corner - the gritty characters, the uncompromising story, and, most of all, visuals to astound and amaze. "Eye candy" doesn't even begin to describe what Rodriguez has accomplished.

Black-and-white is the best format for film noir, and Rodriguez recognizes that - not that anyone would mistake this picture, with its kinetic energy and restless camera, for a relic of the '40s or '50s. However, what the director offers here is b&w with bells and whistles. Sin City is full of color flashes - the red of a dress or a woman's lipstick, the blue or green of someone's eyes, the blond of a hooker's hair, the orange of fire, or the yellow of a lowlife's skin. Then there's the blood - and there's a lot of that. Blood is either represented as a florescent white or, more frequently, in its natural color. In fact, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to describe Sin City using the old cliche, "black and white and red all over."

With a movie of this ilk, where the style trumps substance, it's easy to come up with something that engages the eyes more than the mind. Fortunately, that's not the case here. Rodriguez and Miller give us a rogue's gallery of memorable heroes and anti-heroes, and make sure that all three of the film's primary episodes are fast-paced and engaging. There's a little of Pulp Fiction in Sin City, both in the hipness and the sense of discovery. Pulp Fiction provided a bigger jolt, but Sin City isn't far behind.

Aside from the decision to shoot in black-and-white, there are plenty of things to announce Sin City as modern-day noir. There's a running voiceover narrative that's about a pulpy as one can imagine, right to the frequent use of the word "dames" to describe women. (Sin City exists out of time, in a world where elements of nearly every decade of the last century are represented in one way or another.) Ties and coats flap in the breeze, with the latter billowing behind running men like bat wings. And nearly every cool character in the film drives a convertible (unless a "flat-top" is specifically requested) and smokes without concern about the health risks. (Of course, for characters that get shot six or seven times, then come back for more, conventional medical issues don't pose much of a problem - although Hartigan has angina.)

The movie attracted an impressive array of talent, including some of the biggest up-and-coming names in Hollywood, as well as a few established stars, and one has-been on the comeback trail. A lesser movie with this kind of high-octane cast could have become bogged down by the "spot the star" syndrome, but Sin City engrosses to the point where we're no longer watching actors with names, but the characters they are playing. For example, when we see Elijah Wood, we're not thinking of Frodo Baggins. And Bruce Willis isn't John McClane. More than anything else, that's a testimony to how well Rodriguez does his job.

There are three lead male characters - one to anchor each of the trio of episodes that form Sin City's structure. For the most part, these individuals do not cross over and invade each other's stories, although the same cannot be said of the other personalities inhabiting Basin City. Bruce Willis plays Hartigan, a tough-talking cop at the end of a career in a place where honest guys like him are hard to find. Before accepting his pension, however, Hartigan wants to solve one last case and save an 11-year old girl from the clutches of a serial murderer/rapist (Nick Stahl). He succeeds, at least to a point, but pays a terrible price in the process.

Elsewhere in the city, the burly, ugly Marv (Mickey Rourke) finds comfort in the arms of a beautiful blonde named Goldie (Jamie King), but when he wakes up the next morning, he discovers that she has been murdered and he has been framed for the crime. Determined to avenge her, Marv pursues a violent, murderous course that takes him to the heart of Basin City's power structure, and seals his fate.

Finally, there's Dwight (Clive Owen), a wanted man with a new face who helps out the city's prostitutes when they accidentally kill a sleazeball cop, Jack Rafferty (Benicio Del Toro). Rafferty's demise threatens the uneasy truce that exists in Old Town between the mob, the police, and the hookers. Dwight agrees to hide the body before the cops figure out what has happened, but a group of mobsters have other ideas, and kidnap Dwight's girlfriend, Gail (Rosario Dawson), as a means to thwart him.

Another notable performer is Jessica Alba, whose career is in the process of going from red-hot to white-hot, as the stripper Nancy. Although she shows less skin than either Carla Gugino (as Marv's lesbian parole officer) or Jamie King, her allure more than makes up for it. (Alba apparently attended the same stripper school as Natalie Portman - the one where the clothing stays on.) Model-turned-actress Devon Aoki has a role that doesn't challenge her thespian skills. She says nary a word but does some nasty things with swords and other bladed instruments.

This is very much Rodriguez's film - like most of his other projects, it was "shot and cut" by him. He is quick to give Frank Miller equal credit, indicating that although the camerawork was his, Miller's contribution was so great that he deserves to be recognized as a co-director. The Director's Guild disagreed, and Rodriguez ended up resigning over the dispute. Quentin Tarantino is listed as a "Special Guest Director," whatever that means. Apparently, Tarantino shot one (or more) of the film's scenes, but I couldn't begin to guess which one. Any contribution by the Kill Bill filmmaker blends seamlessly into the overall production, never calling attention to itself.

Rumor has it that some of the studio executives behind Sin City were looking for a way to get the film a PG-13 rating. Having seen the final cut, it's mind-boggling to believe that such a watered-down version was ever considered. The violence in this movie may be stylized, but there's far too much of it for the MPAA to consider a PG-13. Plus, there's plenty of nudity: Jamie King bares her breasts and Carla Gugino spends about 50% of her limited screen time wearing little or nothing. I'm glad Rodriguez stuck to his guns; a PG-13 version of Sin City would have been a crime. The one that exists is a pleasure.

Sin City (United States, 2005)

Ranked #9 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2005
Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 2005-04-01
MPAA Rating: "R " (Violence, Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1