Lurid run the streets of “Sin City,” as aggressively faithful a rendering of a comic book aesthetic as has been put on the bigscreen with live actors. Deeply and digitally noir with the occasional slash of bold color to highlight a dame’s golden hair or red lips and dress, Robert Rodriguez’s guild-bolting collaboration with graphic artist Frank Miller is a Mickey Spillane fever dream, with a gallery of tough customers doing nasty things to each other on a shimmering monochrome canvas. For geeks, action freaks and sensation-seeking teenage boys of all ages, the price of admission will provide a one-way ticket to hard-boiled heaven, generating potent theatrical B.O. and even stronger returns in the homescreen afterlife.
Miller’s world of rough customers living on the wild side possesses a sordid allure, which the directors dazzlingly deliver to the screen. While the pair’s purist approach may fully realize the nature of the material, it also unfortunately locks it into its own box as a live-action cartoon. An adaptation of three Miller books from the “Sin City” series he launched in 1991, pic is increasingly limited by its episodic nature, repetitive motifs, monolithic character types, use of violence to substitute for drama, lack of modulating humor and virtually identical gravely voices for all its male characters.
The film also peaks early, at the 50-minute point, with the conclusion of its most arresting story, in which Mickey Rourke makes a ferociously effective bigscreen comeback as a hulking part-man, part-beast out to avenge the murder of the only woman who ever done him right. With muscleman Marv literally tearing apart Sin City (actually identified as Basin City on a road sign), Rodriguez and Miller achieve maximum energy in this story, while also endowing it with sardonic humor and a touch of sweetness conspicuously lacking thereafter.
Neatly setting its nightscape location and hard-bitten tone in a brief teaser featuring Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton (sequence served as the acid test that induced Miller to give Rodriguez the go-ahead to use his material), film quickly dives into the struggle of veteran cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis, looking every bit a great film star of old in black-and-white) to prevent a corrupt senator’s pedophile son (Nick Stahl) from raping a young girl.
Narrative soon switches over to the night of pleasure strapping Marv (Rourke) takes with a hooker named Goldie (Jaime King), who next morning turns up dead in his bed. Marv, whose lupine proboscis (wonderfully rendered by the makeup experts to meld convincingly with the actor’s features) has evidently put a sizeable dent in his social life, goes on a rampage in search of the killer.
After checking in with his parole officer, luscious lesbian Lucille (“Spy Kids” star Carla Gugino, letting it all hang out), Marv invades a particularly nasty bar, where a number of the characters who come to figure importantly in later action are first glimpsed. He blows away a priest in a confessional, before continuing his quest to the farm of cannibalistic killer Kevin (Elijah Wood, in radically anti-Frodo mode), who displays on a wall his collection of the beautiful heads of his victims.
So ultra is the violence between the destruction machine known as Marv and the eerily calm Kevin that it becomes perversely funny. This partly stems from the insouciance with which Rourke tosses off his characterization of a man so tough and strong he just can’t help himself. Even when strapped to the electric chair to meet a fate he’d be the first to admit he deserves, he faces his demise with such style you can’t help but like the guy.
The action remains mostly downtown in the next vignette, which sees one of the city’s last good men, Dwight (Clive Owen in rugged BMW ad form), wrangling with berserk corrupt cop Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro, his look significantly changed by a long sloping nose) over the affections of impudent waitress Shellie (Brittany Murphy). The men’s conflict sets off a gang war that impinges on the neighborhood’s collection of savagely sexy hookers, notably their Number One, Gail (Rosario Dawson), Dwight’s great love.
Episode has its moments of grotesque humor — the supposedly dead Jackie Boy continues to figure in the action with a pistol embedded in his forehead — but the presence of quasi-recognizable human beings here emphasizes the absence of any real emotions or relationships.
Dawson comes as close as any of the actresses to creating a memorable role, but the episode reveals an overriding weakness in the material — Miller’s lack of strongly individuated female characters.
With the return of Willis’ cop character for the final half-hour, the directors’ desire to dovetail the stories in “Pulp Fiction” mode becomes clear. But it’s a half-hearted, uninspired gambit and, despite Nick Stahl’s startling transformation from merely a nasty spoiled boy to a grotesque meanie named Yellow Bastard (a character who infests the black-and-white screen with his full appropriate color), Willis’ Hartigan by this time seems too routine a character to ignite great excitement, compared with those who have come before.
However rough they are around the edges, Miller’s male protagonists are descendents of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe as knights trying to rescue largely dubious damsels from the encroaching darkness. To be sure, the combined Women of Sin City would make for a banner issue of any men’s magazine, and the prospect of Jessica Alba, Devon Aoki, Alexis Bledel, Dawson, Gugino, King, Murphy and Shelton in skimpy and slutty attire will assuredly raise the pulses of the target audience.
On the other hand, too much may be made of the prominently billed participation of Quentin Tarantino as “special guest director.” His contribution amounts to one scene, which took a day to shoot, of Owen’s Dwight driving through a hard rain while dealing with the presumably dead Jackie Boy in the seat next to him. It’s a good, energetic scene, but appropriately of a piece with the rest of the picture.
While generously giving Miller top billing on the shared directors’ card (as well as a possessory credit before the title), and eschewing any mention of a screenwriter, Rodriguez takes an amusingly unusual “shot and cut by” credit, and he really shines here; his lensing, using the digital high-definition Sony HFC-950 cameras, sublimely synthesizes the influences of graphic novels and film noir.
The way in which computer generated backgrounds closely evoke and yet improve upon the backdrops and studio sets of 60-year-old Hollywood pictures is an ongoing astonishment, and the synthesis of story, acting and technology is in all ways more satisfying than last year’s similar big-studio experiment, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.”
Rodriguez also collaborated on the exceptionally evocative, ever-present score with John Debney and Graeme Revell.