Sin City

The man is a sap — a rumpled Galahad, willing to throw it all over for a dame. He knows this, but it doesn’t stop him. He takes on the whole rotten world, or, at least, the world he knows — the city and all its crawling demons, the low-level thugs and the high-level cops, politicians and clergy who set them in motion. In the electrifying Sin City, a triptych of film noir taken directly from a series of graphic novels written and drawn by Frank Miller, there are three such men. They are different men — honest cop John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), hulking bruiser Marv (Mickey Rourke), and smooth criminal Dwight (Clive Owen) — but in essence, they’re the same man.

Miller’s stories take some getting used to. After making tons of money for the major comics companies — Marvel with Daredevil, DC with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns — Miller was ready for a project closer to his heart, an unabashed tribute to hard-boiled crime fiction. The Sin City books — there are seven in all — are drenched in Miller’s love of the genre, and the movie version, brought to life by Robert Rodriguez (who co-directed with Miller), is head over heels in love with Miller’s vision. The look of the film quotes extensively from Miller’s chiaroscuro drawings, with bits of color strategically disrupting the pristine black-and-white gloom. Remember how you used to copy the Sunday funnies by pressing a glob of Silly Putty onto the page? Rodriguez’ Sin City is a giant piece of cinematic Silly Putty, and it’s just as fun (and elastic) as that sounds.

After a brief prologue involving a slick Josh Hartnett encountering a red-draped Marley Shelton (this was the footage Rodriguez used to sell a wary Miller on his concept for the movie), we get a few minutes of “That Yellow Bastard,” wherein aging cop Hartigan seems to be thwarted in his attempt to save an 11-year-old girl from the degenerate scion (Nick Stahl) of a senator. We leave Hartigan for a while, and take up the story of Marv, “The Hard Goodbye,” in which the big lug obsessively tracks down the murderer of a hooker (Jaime King) who, despite his saucepan mug, gave him a memorable night in a heart-shaped bed. The tale proceeds and ends quite noir-ishly, with a pit stop in the realm of horror, as Marv faces off against a silent cannibal (Elijah Wood, as un-Frodo as he can get).

The handsomer but no less hard-bitten Dwight stars in the next story, “The Big Fat Kill,” in which someone dies who isn’t supposed to, threatening the delicate truce between the denizens of Oldtown (a section of Sin City owned and operated by armed-to-the-teeth hookers led by a feral Rosario Dawson) and the police. From there we segue back to “That Yellow Bastard,” wherein Hartigan rises from the almost-dead to protect the now-grown girl, Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), from the genetically twisted remix of the sick freak he thought he’d killed.

Everyone involved in Sin City not only understands this lurid universe but has a grand time playing in it. They’re fully committed to speaking Miller’s sometimes stilted crime-novel dialogue; it’s the language of blood, revenge, desperation. Of all the actors — including Rutger Hauer in a tiny but creepy turn as a despicable cardinal — Mickey Rourke most viscerally gets the soul of noir. His Marv is a tough-guy sentimentalist who has certain guidelines — “I don’t hurt girls” — but takes to brawling and torture like a natural-born psycho, all the while popping pills meant to keep him from getting “confused.” Rourke submerges himself in this shambling mass of violence without a hint of ego; his comeback deserves to begin here.

Sin City is a gleaming pop revelation, a completely realized vision in a way that the similar but sadly uninvolving Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow wasn’t. Robert Rodriguez is a lifelong comics geek and tireless DIY digital filmmaker, and Sin City is what he’s been getting at all these years. His sense of play is inseparable from Miller’s; the books have the charming feel of a guy doodling stories that excite him, and so does the movie. Miller loves gun-toting, sword-swinging women, and Sin City gives him the silent, deadly Miho (Devon Aoki) to conjure with — she’s the mirror image of the wordless cannibal, and she could easily move from Oldtown into the world of Kill Bill. (Rodriguez’ buddy Quentin Tarantino, the maestro behind Kill Bill, dropped by the set and directed a morbidly funny scene between Dwight and a sicko played over-the-top by Benicio Del Toro.) Sin City doesn’t touch mundane reality for a minute, confining itself to a hermetic yet teeming universe of knights in trenchcoats, dragons with badges, and damsels creating distress. As a work of pulp-fiction devotion, it’s the most vital American film in years.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, comic-book, cult, one of the year's best, thriller

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