“There’s wrong and there’s wrong and then there’s this.” —Marv (Mickey Rourke) in Sin City.
Robert Rodriguez’s pulp noir on steroids, Sin City, is the damnedest thing you’re likely to see all year. Much will be made of the film’s highly stylized look, and deservedly so. The digitally enhanced imagery bursts from the screen with a giddy exuberance that’s overwhelming. Gorgeous high-gloss black-and-white visuals splashed with arterial reds and yellows capture the look and feel of a comic book in ways no other film has. (Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy came close but lacked the technology to successfully pull it off.)
Sexist, nihilistic and riddled with enough tough-guy dialogue to fill a library of pulp novels, Sin City is a relentless assault on the senses. Set in a gritty rain-drenched metropolis that exists out of time, the film boasts adrenaline-fueled machismo and ferocious violence run amok. The women are either scantily clad angels or heavily armed hellcats, and the gritty he-man anti-heroes are as homicidal as they are chivalrous.
Using Frank Miller’s acclaimed graphic novels as his blueprint, Rodriguez has created a triptych of blood-soaked stories that feature hard-boiled voice-overs, gymnastic camera work and villains with freakish prosthetics. He’s also attracted an impressive cast of high-octane veterans and talented up-and-comers.
The first story, “That Yellow Bastard,” features Bruce Willis as John Hartigan, an over-the-hill detective with a bum ticker. Desperate to stop a pedophile named Junior (Nick Stahl) from claiming his next victim, Hartigan horribly disfigures his foe. Unfortunately, he incurs the wrath of Junior’s father, a corrupt and powerful senator, and ends up endangering the girl he swore to protect. Willis finds the right balance between world-weariness and gritty nobility, lending dramatic weight to this sordid tale of martyrdom. Still, there’s something a little unsettling about watching the 50-year-old actor get hot and heavy with 24-year-old Jessica Alba.
The second and best segment, “The Hard Goodbye,” boasts Mickey Rourke at his tightly coiled best. Buried beneath layers of makeup, he’s spectacular as Marv, a muscle-bound bruiser who spends one night with the girl of his dreams, only to wake up next to her dead body, framed for murder. Rourke practically steals the show as he embarks on a one-man crusade to avenge the girl’s death. He gives Marv a wounded majesty while delivering his lines with a hilariously maniacal swagger. Elijah Wood is his silent but creepy nemesis, Kevin — erasing all chances that he’ll forever be typecast as Frodo.
The third and weakest tale, “The Big Fat Kill,” stars Clive Owen as the psychotically rugged ladies man, Dwight. When a brief tussle with a corrupt cop (Benicio Del Toro) unexpectedly turns into a turf war between heavily armed prostitutes and vicious mobsters, Owen must come to the aid of his ex-flame, Gail (the wonderfully wicked Rosario Dawson). Though the narrative lacks the visceral punch of the first two stories, it has a gleefully sick sense of humor and some hysterically surreal moments.
Like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, it’s hard to imagine just who exactly Sin City was made for. The film defies easy labels and has undoubtedly challenged the best of Hollywood’s marketing departments. Nevertheless, Rodriguez has created a moviegoing experience that is as bold as it is exhilarating. And for all its moral bleakness, Sin City actually has something to say about valor and courage. Its protagonists, as damaged and violent as they are, seek their own forms of redemption.
By reveling in misanthropic nastiness, overwrought melodrama and sadistic humor, Sin City promises to offend a whole slew of special interest groups. For the rest of us, it offers two hours of eye-popping brutality and pitch-black humor that is best summed up by Marv, when asked if he’ll find satisfaction by killing his enemy. “The killing? No,” he says, “but everything up until that’ll be a gas.”
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.