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Frank Miller's Sin City ( )
Directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez (special guest director Quentin Tarantino)
Written by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez
Frank Miller's Sin City
Frank Miller's Sin City
Frank Miller's Sin City
Frank Miller's Sin City
Frank Miller's Sin City
Principal Cast
Bruce Willis
-- Hartigan
Mickey Rourke
-- Marv
Jessica Alba
-- Nancy Callahan
Clive Owen
-- Dwight
Nick Stahl
-- Roark Jr./Yellow Bastard
Powers Boothe
-- Senator Roark
Rutger Hauer
-- Cardinal Roark
Elijah Wood
-- Kevin
Rosario Dawson
-- Gail
Benicio Del Toro
-- Jackie Boy
Jaime King
-- Goldie/Wendy
Devon Aoki
-- Miho
Brittany Murphy
-- Shellie
Michael Clarke Duncan
-- Manute
Carla Gugino
-- Lucille
Alexis Bledel
-- Becky
Josh Hartnett
-- The Man
Marley Shelton
-- The Customer
Michael Madsen
-- Bob
Frank Miller
-- Priest
Frank Miller's Sin City
Frank Miller's Sin City Tribute Site
The Complete Works of Frank Miller


One star - Poor
Two stars - Fair
Three stars - Not Bad
Four stars - Pretty Good
Five stars - Great
Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Newbert

"This is blood for blood and by the gallons. This is the
old days, the bad days, the all or nothing days. They're
back!" --Marv
Gory, sexy, occasionally infuriating, but always thrilling, Frank Miller's Sin City (the possessive is straight from the title screen) is so uncompromising that it's bound to polarize nearly everyone who sees it. Set in a kind of dreamworld dipped in memories of black-and-white crime dramas, it belongs to no particular time or place. Unapologetically brutal, it's a fantasy of power, lust, corruption, and violent retribution. Based on the series of comic books by writer and artist Frank Miller (only we're not supposed to call them "comic books" anymore; now they're "graphic novels"), and brought to life by maverick filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and his digital toolkit, this movie is a speedball of style and adolescent wish fulfillment.

Miller's original Sin City, winner of the Eisner Award, features outrageous (and outrageously violent) storylines and striking (though often sloppy) artwork, infused with the heavy chiaroscuro of the early E.C. horror comics. Visual emphasis comes from the composition and occasional uses of color to paint important figures. As a pairing of style and content, these graphics are exemplary. Miller's characters will step out of black spreads of negative space, such spaces gleaming like oily puddles under sodium arc lights, while an ivory downpour lacerates the page with a wrath. These people live in the morally bankrupt Basin City, in Miller's hands a literally black-and-white world, though occasionally you can find a yellow bastard or a woman in red.

Rodriguez has built a near-perfect imitation of Miller's gloom and doom, forging it in front of green screens and digital cameras which let him add backgrounds and those spots of color afterwards (are Alexis Bledel's eyes really that blue?). The film's visual impact is astonishing: it looks like a milkshake blended with pitch. Clearly the graphic novel was used in place of storyboards for the film; there is often no appreciable difference between panels of the books and frames of the movie. It's only fitting that Miller was handed a co-director credit, even at the cost of Rodriguez resigning from the Director's Guild. The only thing missing is an animation of turning pages, as cars jump into the air while cresting a hill at high speed, or a breeze blows a jacket back from its wearer just right for a dramatic effect. Perhaps the most beautiful moment is a snowfall in the final act, as a character is released from years in prison back into a world as ugly as he has ever seen it. It manages to be both poignant and gorgeous at the same time.

Rodriguez's script takes three of Sin City's more popular storylines and mashes them together somewhat in the manner of Pulp Fiction (Tarantino gets a small "guest director" credit, as well, for a nasty car ride about half-way through), and the feeling of several narratives bottled under high pressure doesn't let up. "The Hard Goodbye" features Marv (Mickey Rourke, in a role I imagine he was born to play, he's so good in it), one of the representative figures of the series, a grotesque, hyper-masculine superman with a high tolerance for pain and a soft spot for dames. When a prostitute that he loved is murdered, Marv goes on a rampage to avenge her death. His quest eventually takes him to the highest reaches of the city's power, both secular and spiritual (look for Rutger Hauer in a scary and campy cameo). "The Big Fat Kill" revolves around do-gooder Dwight McCarthy (Clive Owen), an underdog with a shady past, a weakness for women, and an apparent tendency to suffer psychotic delusions while under stress ("Hi. I'm Shellie's new boyfriend and I'm out of my mind..."). His romantic rivalry with a dirty cop leads to a nascent street war between Basin City's organized prostitutes and its corrupt police force. While it seems odd to say it, this is the film's version of a comedy of manners, if there is such a thing for the etiquette due a severed head. The final and possibly best tale is "That Yellow Bastard," starring Bruce Willis as John Hartigan, an honest cop forced into early retirement because of a bad ticker (his heart isn't in it anymore), but who takes one last mission: stopping a vicious pedophile who also happens to be the son of Basin City's tyrannical mayor. Hartigan manages to save 11-year-old Nancy Callahan, but at the cost of his freedom. Nancy grows up to become a popular, lasso-twirling stripper (the luscious Jessica Alba), and when she's threatened once more, Hartigan is forced into another nasty showdown as history seeks to repeat itself. In contrast to the blood work of the other tales, this portion of the film is evocative and melancholy, and plays with time in a way that feels almost elastic. (There's also a framing tale lifted from "The Customer is Always Right," featuring Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton in spot perfect casting.)

Occasionally the film is too perfect an adaptation of the books. On the page, the captions and the pictures can exist side by side, one complementing the other without competition, because text and pictures are frozen moments, and you can take your time passing back and forth between word and image. On the screen, as action is constrained to match the pace of a voice-over monologue, you're reminded of why everyone quickly bored of Harrison Ford's narration in Blade Runner: it's a static conceit, a knife in the back of dramatic art. And in Sin City, there are lots of voice-over monologues. Authentic to the genre or not, there's little use for it in film.

The supporting cast is strong across the board, though some are better than others, bright as diamonds in tar: the aforementioned Bledel is a subtle femme fatale, dangerously innocent as the prostitute Becky; Elijah Wood is super creepy as the child-like killer Kevin, with no dialogue but tons of menace; Benicio Del Toro as Jackie Boy is comically and sickeningly unlucky; and the captivating Carla Gugino is extremely poised while being almost entirely naked (she has a body that should be on display in the Smithsonian.) And so on right down the line. To their credit, all of the actors sell the movie with a straight face; if they had seemed to be mocking it, it all would have fallen apart. That's how close to parody this film's exuberance carries it.

The stories are all about pain leading to anger, anger leading to suffering, and suffering leading to someone getting what they had coming to them (Yoda would hate this thing). Actually, Miller and Rodriguez include precious little evidence about real suffering; they display plenty of variations on pain and violence without a hint of its human toll. This is why "The Yellow Bastard" works so well, I suppose, as it's the only story here that has an idea of what innocence means and what it may cost to protect it. I was honestly heartbroken by the finale, partly because Bruce Willis is excellent as Hartigan, and Alba seems like sweetness and light yearning to feel whole. In its final minutes, Sin City finds it has a heart, after all.

I can't imagine anyone who's read the comics -- sorry, "graphic novels" -- being disappointed with this, as it's such a loving rendition of what they will be paying their money for. But fidelity to the source material can be a mixed blessing. Bound and determined to reproduce Miller's books exactly as they are, Rodriguez held on to every caricature, every overkill moment, every dismemberment and beheading. At the showing I attended, you could see people start to walk out about thirty minutes into it. Some things aren't for everyone. It really is Frank Miller's Sin City, for better and worse.

Copyright © 2005 David Newbert

David Newbert worked for public and university libraries for several years before joining the college book trade. He lives in New Mexico, where the aliens landed.

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