Thursday, April 07, 2005

Sin City / **** (R)

Hartigan: Bruce Willis
Marv: Mickey Rourke
Nancy: Jessica Alba
Dwight: Clive Owen
Gail: Rosario Dawson
Junior/Yellow Bastard: Nick Stahl
Jackie Boy: Benicio Del Toro
Goldie/Wendy: Jamie King
Lucille: Carla Gugino
Kevin: Elijah Wood
Bob: Michael Madsen
Manute: Michael Clarke Duncan
Shellie: Brittany Murphy

Dimension presents a film written and directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, with guest directing by Quentin Tarantino. Running time: 124 minutes. Rated R (for sustained, strong, stylized violence, nudity and sexual content including dialogue).

There was a time when film noir was a very popular movie genre. It is still revisited every once and a while in this age of blockbuster pyrotechnics, usually fairly well received by critics. It is a genre populated by bad people doing bad things to each other. Every once and a while there is a good character thrown into the mix, albeit with flaws. Invariably these unsavory lives will meet their end before the film’s credits scroll. These characters are people who will most certainly never see the inside of the pearly gates. Sin City is the hell to which these film noir characters are sent for their penance.

With Sin City writer/directors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez have created one of the most unique cinematic experiences in film history. Certainly their dark sultry world draws upon the fundamentals of film noir. Certainly its action is based on that of the graphic novel/comic book format in which Miller’s original material appeared. Yes, the direction owes much to the multi-storyline/anthology format popularized in the ‘90s by director/auteur Quentin Tarantino (who is given a guest directing credit). But Sin City is like nothing ever witnessed on the silver screen before.

It is a world of sex and death, where the men are as hard as the lines formed by their square jaws or their high caliber Berettas and softness can only be found in the hourglass figure of the naked female form, but all too often that only leads back to death. It is a black and white world. A world of good and bad, and the good guys are losing. A world of shadows and light, where the only color comes in the form of thick red lips, dazzling blue paint on a classic car, buckets of crimson blood, strobic flashes of hallucination, yellow-bellied skin, or simple red tennis shoes. The car chases are like a raping of the road and life expectancy is microscopic. The men speak in low-pitched guttural growls and the women sell their sex for power and one eleven-year old girl loves eternally.

Voiceover permeates the proceedings to make up for the film medium’s lack of thought balloons and further embrace the heavy noir influence. All the characters speak with a heightened noir flare that would sound silly in a realistic setting, but only helps to build this world’s fantastic reality. All are bold statements like, “It's time to prove to your friends that you're worth a damn. Sometimes that means dying, sometimes it means killing a whole lot of people.” And when someone tells you they are going to shoot your naughty bits off, it is no mere threat; you are going to be searching for your necessities in agony for quite some time.

Never has a particular comic book so accurately been portrayed on screen before. The Spider-Man series successfully realized the human drama that is normally absent in comic book adaptations and Ang Lee’s Hulk made strides toward using the screen to replicate the layout of an actual comic book with its multiple panel screen and overlapping images, but Sin City tells this comic book story as if comic books and film were much more closely related art forms. The comic book plays around a great deal with light and dark, often contrasting moods and action using black against white silhouettes as well as white against black. There are several instances here where the exact same technique is used on screen. One character wears glasses with lenses that are almost consistently whited out as if the light is always reflecting off them. The production design lies somewhere between reality and drawn art, with the CGI backgrounds looking as if they are depicting real artifacts but moving as if they were trapped in a cartoon.
Sin City consists of three stories, with short bookends starring Josh Hartnett (Pearl Harbor).

“The Hard Goodbye” stars a hulking Mickey Rourke (Once Upon a Time in Mexico) as Marv, a lug only his mother could love, who is framed for the murder of a hooker named Goldie (Jamie King, White Chicks), who is one of the few people in his life that had ever shown him kindness. Rodriguez staple Carla Gugino (Snake Eyes) is Marv’s parole officer Lucille, who joins Marv in his search for justice over Goldie’s death, which brings them across the paths of predator and prey alike; including Goldie’s twin sister Wendy (also played by King), a very creepy mute named Kevin, and an arch bishop (Rutger Hauer, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) who does little to improve the image of the Catholic Church. During much of this story Marv questions his reality because he tends to “get confused,” so neither he nor the audience is ever quite sure what is real, which is as it should be for the audience with its first look into this strange universe. Elijah Wood does his best to shed his do-gooding Hobbit image from The Lord of the Rings with what is sure to be one of the most disturbing character portrayals of the year as the acrobatic, clawed, and muted Kevin.

In “The Big Fat Kill” Clive Owen (Closer) plays the criminal, but not cold-hearted hero Dwight. Dwight wears the red tennies and says things like, “I'm Shellie's new boyfriend, and I'm out of my mind. You ever so much as talk to Shellie again, you even think her name, and I'll cut you in ways that'll make you useless to a woman,” to a depraved Benicio Del Toro (Traffic) as Jackie Boy. When Jackie Boy wanders into Old Town looking for a bad time, Dwight follows him, “to make sure he didn't hurt any of the girls.” The girls of Old Town are far from fragile. Led by the beautiful but deadly Gail (Rosario Dawson, The 25th Hour), the girls find themselves in the middle of a turf war when Jackie Boy ends up at the wrong end of his own gun barrel, even though it looked like the right end. Del Toro’s role is not cut short by his character’s death and Owen shows an action personality not hinted at in his previous roles.

“That Yellow Bastard” closes the picture, serves as the film’s one glimpse of humanity that audiences have come to expect from movies, and coincidentally is the one Sin City storyline of which I myself had actually read previously in graphic novel format. The story begins as a second introduction for the entire film before either of the other two stories gets under way. It follows one of the few good cops of Basin City John Hartigan, played by a more subdued than normal Bruce Willis (Hostage). Hartigan knows that if he were the typical cowboy Willis normally plays in film, he wouldn’t last two days in the corrupt police force of ’Sin City. But Hartigan can’t sit back and let a senator’s son Junior (Nick Stahl, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) get away with atrocious acts against young girls. Hartigan almost succeeds in his heroics and at least saves young Nancy from the horrors of that monster.

When the story picks back up, Hartigan’s life has been saved by Senator Rourk (Powers Booth, HBO’s Deadwood) to take the fall for his son. Hartigan serves 8 years to protect the whereabouts of Junior’s unclaimed victim, but when Hartigan is sent evidence that the now grown Nancy (Jessica Alba, Honey) has been discovered by her former assailant, he does what he must to get out and protect her. Despite Willis’s subdued performance, he manages to prove his value as an actor in the way he so faithfully recreates, not just the character of Hartigan, but also the dramatic images of Miller’s original artwork through his performance. There is a moment where he falls to the snow in pain with his fist above his head trembling that could not be a truer representation of the comic’s original artwork, and the performance feeds that feeling as much as the shot framing. It is likely there are parallel moments like this in all three stories. And Stahl, whose roles up until this might have lacked some dynamics, brings surprising levels of bravado across in his performance even after his soul has mutated his body into the make-up heavy Yellow Bastard of the story’s title.

Those are the story plots, but plot isn’t really what this experience is about. This movie, like Tarantino’s own Kill Bill, Vol. 1, is about the style of the picture. Unlike that film, this one concentrates solely on that comic book noir style created so completely by Miller himself. This is a man who reinvented the comic book superhero, and the comic book itself, when he retooled Batman during the ‘80’s into a dark antihero. By the time he got around to his work on the Sin City comic books in the ‘90’s, he took that antihero to its furthest extreme and placed it into its natural noir environment of sex and violence, the only place these hardened men and women could be properly nurtured by its darkness. Rodriguez and Miller so faithfully recreate this harshest of realities (or unrealities is more like it) with this film, they have again transcended the format in which it is presented. Film will forever be changed by what these men have accomplished here.

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