Basin City, a sprawling metropolis in which crime and lawlessness is a way of life for its seedy residents, so much so that it has earned the nickname Sin City. Amongst its citizens are three men in pursuit of justice at any cost. First up is soon to be retired Police Chief Hartigan, a cop with a final mission, to rescue a young girl from an evil paedophile. A paedophile who also happens to be the son of an influential senator. Meanwhile muscle-bound Marv is seeking revenge on those responsible for killing Goldie, the one woman to show him a little tenderness. Dwight completes the trio – “a murderer with a new face who’s one fingerprint check away from the fast track to the gas chamber” – following the former boyfriend of his girl who, along with his gang, has violent intentions in Old Town, ruled over by prostitutes.
The comic book movie is now so commonplace in modern cinema that it could almost be seen as a genre unto itself. Many films have tried, with varying degrees of success, to transpose the conventions of the comic book medium to the big screen. Guillermo del Toro effectively translated the colourful two dimensional world and characters of Hellboy into an enjoyable cinematic romp, and Ang Lee brought comic book panels to the big screen with his stylish interpretation of Hulk. Now director Robert Rodriguez attempts the same trick with Frank Miller’s hard-boiled graphic novels.
The opening prologue sets the scene, preparing the viewer for the conventions of this world with The Man (Josh Hartnett) meeting The Customer (Marley Shelton) on a rain soaked balcony, her red dress and lips in striking contrast to the monochromatic colour scheme which predominates. Then over the opening credits comes the artwork of Frank Miller, and audiences can see how perfectly Rodriguez has realised the characters and environments of Sin City. In short there has never been a film quite like it. A world, for the most part, in black and white, a reflection of the simplistic morality of its characters who struggle to survive on the mean streets of this dangerous city. As in Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow and much of the new Star Wars trilogy the actors were filmed against green screen, the sets added later by unfathomable computer wizardry. This is probably the most effective use of such a tool, indeed it is really the only way in which the highly stylised artwork of Frank Miller could be represented. Miller gets a co-directing credit and it is completely deserved as Rodriguez has directly translated the pages of his graphic novel onto the silver screen. Although this love letter to the noir genre is shot in black and white, occasionally, and highly effectively, certain elements are accentuated by the use of colour, a woman’s eyes or dress, as in the prologue for example or most obviously the character of The Yellow Bastard. The only other film that has come close to staying true to the colour scheme of a comic book in such a way is Dick Tracy. But Sin City is a world on whose streets Chester Gould’s crime fighter would fear to tread.
In order to fit into this beautifully harsh world of dark shadows and stark lighting many of the actors have undergone extensive make-up. The most obvious is The Yellow Bastard (an individual who is as grotesque physically as he is mentally) but the one that steals the show is Mickey Rourke, almost unrecognisable as Marv. Rourke gives a definitive, career best performance as this great hulk of a man. Despite his violent tendencies it’s hard not to like him and the character is a more adult, edgy variant of that brick skinned cigar chewing blue collar member of The Fantastic Four, The Thing. Bruce Willis, not unfamiliar with playing maverick cops, brings a world-weariness to Hartigan, the one good cop with one more good deed to do and Clive Owen is Dwight, another man who operates on the wrong side of the law but has a strong moral code. Elijah Wood also leaves an impression as the silent but deadly Kevin, a role that is very different from his most famous character, the hairy-footed hobbit. In fact he comes across more like Gollum than the heroic Frodo in a tale which has a pulpy E.C. Comics aspect. As for the women, well there is no denying their status as eye-candy. From Jessica Alba to Rosario Dawson, they have been chosen for their looks as much as their acting ability, befitting a source material that is inherently visual. They are also the catalyst for the male characters to start their bloody course of revenge and as such they fit what some would see as old-fashioned gender stereotypes; however they are all pretty tough cookies. On the flipside, it could be reasoned that the male characters are trying to prove their masculinity, trying to prove they’re “worth a damn” in the only way they know how, the only way that makes sense in Sin City. They are not fighting villains for the good of humanity but simply settling personal scores, following their own moral codes not trying to change the world, which can’t be done. Sin City has a rather pessimistic outlook in this sense; the corruption which stretches all the way up to the higher echelons of power cannot be defeated.
On one level the three stories are basically variations on a theme, each one centred on a male protagonist working outside the framework of the law, righting wrongs perpetrated against women. But this is to overlook what Miller has done, taken the conventions of film noir and raised them to the level of myth. Each character is an archetype of the genre, from the honest cop in a corrupt force to the hooker with a heart of gold. Marv is a perfect example, an almost Herculean individual who possesses a resolve that renders him virtually indestructible. Likewise the dialogue could be seen as clichéd but here, in this hyper-noir environment, it could not be more perfect. Much of the script, intact from the comic, is rendered as voiceover, another familiar element found in the detective movies of the forties and fifties. This punchy, direct dialogue could almost have been lifted from the literature of such authors as Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. The world of Sin City is an extension of this, a world that could only exist in fiction; indeed it resembles nothing less than film noir on steroids.
Not for the fainthearted, Sin City is the most faithful comic book adaptation ever made and a superb, uncompromising film in its own right. Rodriguez has basically used the comic book original in the same way that other filmmakers use storyboards and the result is one of the most innovative and visually striking movies of recent times, a 21st century noir masterpiece. Without doubt the film of the year, it will be loved by cinephiles and also have a profound affect on cinema for a long time to come.
American writer/director and one of the most iconic filmmakers of the 1990s. The former video store clerk made his debut in 1992 with the dazzling crime thriller Reservoir Dogs, which mixed razor sharp dialogue, powerhouse acting and brutal violence in controversial style. Sprawling black comedy thriller Pulp Fiction was one of 1994's biggest hits and resurrected John Travolta's career, much as 1997's Elmore Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown did for Pam Grier.
Sin City looks mighty fine and couldn't have been better cast, but I wonder if I didn't prefer it on the page. When they're this faithful I don't see what the point of adapting it is. And if you tap it on the head - "blong blong" - it sounds hollow, just one glossy step up from a seventies exploitation movie from Al Adamson or Ted V. Mikels, who weren't under the same pretentions.