Frank Miller's Sin City

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Frank Miller's Sin City
Frank Miller's Sin City
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews Laura Clifford 
Graphic novelist Frank Miller joins ranks with maverick filmmaker Robert Rodriguez in adapting the author’s dark works to the silver screen. Together, they take us to the noire, surreal town of Basin City where crime is king, babes are beautiful and totin’ a gun is a way of life in “Sin City.”

Robert Rodriguez is one of those oddities in the mainstream film industry – he made a splash with his no-budget first work, “El Mariachi (1992),” and went on to make it a franchise with “Desperado (1995)” and Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003).” He continued marching to his own drum when he made the hugely popular “Spy Kids (2001)” and followed that up with Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (2002)” and “Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003).” His filmography shows few missteps as he took on the multi-hyphenate roles of director-writer-cinematographer-editor-producer-scoremeister over the years, all the while maintaining a devotion to his muse, Quentin Tarantino. He follows in his muse’s steps with the highly stylish “Sin City.”

Taken from three of Frank Miller’s “Sin City” graphic novel series – the titular comic book (AKA “The Hard Goodbye”) plus “The Big Fat Kill” and “The Yellow Bastard” – the film is in four, intertwined parts. Part one introduces us to John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), an aging cop in Basin City whose bum ticker is forcing him into early retirement, but not before he takes down a vicious serial killer, Junior Roark (Nick Stahl), who has a penchant of inflicting immense pain and suffering to his victims. Hartigan saves the life of Junior’s latest victim, 11-year old Nancy (Makenzie Vega), but at great cost to himself.

The film jumps to the love story/revenge pic as we meet man-monster Marv (Mickey Rourke), a hulking, deformed creature with a face even a mother couldn’t love. But, one person, Goldie (Jaime King), sees beyond the ugly disfigurement and gives Marv one night of love, both physical and spiritual. But, he awakes the next morning to find his one true love murdered in his bed. Marv must bury the human within and let loose the beast that will exact vengeance on Goldie’s killers, though not before her identical twin sister, Wendy (King), mistakenly blames Marv for Goldie’s death.

The next chapter tells Dwight’s (Clive Owen) story as he ventures into the hooker-controlled part of Basin City, Old Towne, where he stops evil Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) from harming Amazonian beauty Gail (Rosario Dawson) and the rest of the lady residents. Dwight’s deadly intervention resonates far beyond where he expected when he learns that Jackie Rafferty is no mobster but an influential, corrupt cop and he must try to hide his mayhem to protect the beautiful denizens of Old Towne.

Finally, the film bookends with its return to Hartigan’s tale, eight years later, as he, once again, must protect all-grown-up Nancy (Jessica Alba) from the nefarious clutches of reincarnated Junior (Stahl), a malodorous yellow monster that wants to pick up where he left off with Nancy those many years before.

(I should also mention, for completeness, the parenthetical prologue and epilogue with Josh Harnett as a charming hitman named the Salesman who specializes in contract killing beautiful, misguided women. It is kind of a throw away in a film that has a lot of throwaway bits and pieces.)

The forte of “Sin City” lay in its vivid visual graphics that represent one of the best renditions of a graphic novel since “The Crow (1994).” Rodriguez (with Frank Miller credited as co-director) brings us to a highly stylized, mostly black-and-white world where slashes of color accentuate the noire quality of Basin City. In this surrealistic world, blood gushes out in milky white torrents as victims, good and bad alike, are blasted and battered by the many deadly confrontations that are the meat of the film. Even though the filmmakers stylishly depict the multiple mayhems, the ultra violence of Miller’s picture stories leaps to the screen under Rodriguez’s hand, who, as his fans know, is no slouch when it comes to on-screen violence.

Rodriguez borrows from his mentor’s films, “Kill Bill: Vols. 1 and 2,” in both style and substance. This is not a bad thing but it does give “Sin City” a derivative feel. The best of the tales told is Marv’s story. He is a amalgamation of characters ranging from Frankenstein’s monster to the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” and the title character in “Hellboy.” The monstrous looking Rourke conveys humor and sensitivity in his hard-to-kill character that makes him an unlikely but believable hero figure. His single-minded mission to avenge Goldie’s death makes Marv both a sympathetic and an empathetic character. I like Marv best.

The Clive Owen sequence merits from its ample use of beautiful, provocatively dressed ladies of the night in Old Towne with Dwight trying to help and save Gail and her friends from corrupt destruction. Of the many beautiful women in “Sin City,” Rosario Dawson fares best as Gail and actually succeeds in overcoming her eye-candy appeal, giving dimension to her character. The rest of the Old Towne girls are well enough handled by Devon Aoki as Miho, the ladies’ martial arts maestro (with more than a passing resemblance to Tarantino’s character, Gogo (Chiaki Kuriyama) in “Kill Bill: Vol. 1”), and the quisling Becky (Alexis Bledel), whose misguided action puts the careful balance in Old Towne at risk. The rest of the ladies are, in a word, babelicious.

To me, the least of the stories is the two parter with Willis’s character, Hartigan, in the forefront. His stories begin with him trying to bring down Junior, the sick and twisted son of a United States Senator and nephew of the powerful Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer in scenery chewing mode), and save little Nancy from doom. His story picks up, again, after the framed and fallen Hartigan, recently released from prison, returns to find and protect the all grown up Nancy, who happens to be a popular stripper in a sleazy Basin City nightclub. This part creeps me out as, what starts, seemingly, as a father/daughter tale turns into a May/December romance that I found disturbing, almost sick.

The production elements of “Sin City” are exquisitely handled. Rodriguez has a good eye for the mise en scene and he takes it to new heights. Set decoration, by David Hack, creates a vividly depicted film noire world with retro sets and vintage cars providing a world that is both decades old and retro-modern. Costume, especially for the Ladies of Old Towne, are a delight in their kitchiness while the makeup team do an exemplary job, especially in making Mickey Rourke near unrecognizable in his Marv guise. The team also gives Benicio Del Toro a sinister visage with, mainly, a nose prosthetic.

Sin City” has been long anticipated by the fan boy population that is addicted to the Miller graphic series and Rodriguez’s stylish take and faithfulness to the material (from what I have been able to garner from those fan boys) will appeal to that crowd. There is also a good chance that the film will bring about a surge in the Sin City print readership that will, in all likelihood, spawn the sequel, and possibly a series, for this comic-book-to-the-screen adaptation. However, I wish that Rodriguez and company had picked just one story (Marv’s) and made one really good movie instead of three OK movies-in-one. I give it a B-.

For months, the fan boys have been salivating over the ultra-cool looking trailer for Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City," which has actually been released with the title "Frank Miller's Sin City" in homage to the graphic novel author.  Ironically, it is the source material that is the main problem with this meticulous recreation of the printed page. This city's so full of sin it becomes banal and Rodriguez's obsession with painstakingly recreating a comic book on screen makes him punch through the medium of film into something with a hollow heart.

"Frank Miller's Sin City" is adapted from three stories of a series and Rodriguez shapes them from the "Pulp Fiction" template.  There's a wrapper featuring Josh Hartnett as a perverse hit man and three main stories, the first of which features Bruce Willis as a cop on his last day before retirement whose only desire is to save the life of a young girl.  This story returns 'eight years later' for the film's finale.  The second story is the only truly engaging one of the bunch and introduces characters for the film's last two acts.  Mickey Rourke, looking like Ron Perlman's Hellboy without the horns in a career pinnacle of a performance, is a punch drunk thug astonished by the night of love he is receiving from Goldie (Jaime King, "White Chicks"), a pulp noir blonde bombshell.  While Marv is sleeping, Goldie is murdered and he's been set up to take the rap.  Marv goes on a rampage, determined to find the killer of the only woman he's ever loved, and in the process discovers the nexus of Basin City's evil centered in the corrupt Roark brothers, one a pol (Powers Boothe, HBO's "Deadwood"), the other a Catholic Cardinal (Rutger Hauer, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind").  The family's second generation includes two serial killers, Junior (Nick Stahl, "In the Bedroom") whose crimes are covered up by dad and the corrupt police department (and who was Hardigan's (Willis) target), and Kevin (Elijah Wood, going all anti-Frodo), a cannibal who sucks the souls of hookers with the Cardinal (one of Miller's more ridiculous ideas) and Goldie's killer.  The final story involves rotten-to-the-core misogynist Jack (Benicio del Toro, wearing a prosthetic nose that has an unsettling effect) and good guy Dwight's (Clive Owen, "Closer") fight over barmaid Shellie (Brittany Murphy, sadly not resuscitating her career here) which escalates into a showdown between the cops and Old Town's street walkers (led by Rosario Dawson's ("Alexander") Gail garbed in nothing but well-placed S&M straps).

Sure there's some cool stuff in "Sin City," beginning with the incredible overhead shot of Goldie lusciously laid out in a heart-shaped bed like a box of Valentine's Day chocolates as imagined by Alberto Vargas.  (Of course, this also points to the objectification of women in this film.  Young males will delight to the sight of Carla Gugino ("Spy Kids") as a lesbian parole officer who struts around wearing nothing but a thong and a gun, but only Dawson achieves anything resembling character, mainly because she's more like one of the tough guys.)  The film's black and white digital images (backgrounds are CGI created), livened with splashes of color in the dames, cars and blood spurts, are beautiful to look at, although they would work better as stills than moving images (and in fact, become stills in some silhouette shots).  Kevin's surreal end is delightfully sick, just as Marv's final moments are a gleeful antidote to "The Green Mile's" execution scene.  Quentin Tarantino's 'guest' directed bit, featuring Dwight and Jack's rather animated corpse, gives the film some much needed wit, largely due to del Toro's perversely inspired dead schtick.

Still, of all things, all this slick looking mayhem actually grows tedious.  I found it noteworthy that at a packed promotional screening full of fans geared up to be the first on their block to see this film, you could have heard a pin drop throughout the second half of its running time.  Yet comments on the way out were all of the 'Awesome' variety, as if the viewers simply made their minds up before the opening credits ran (Frank Miller's cameo as a priest in a confessional was met with a big cheer).

"Frank Miller's Sin City" isn't a bad film.  What's questionable is whether it's really a film at all.

B- (almost entirely for Mickey Rourke, otherwise a C)

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