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Sin City (2005)
Directors: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez

review by Roger Keen

Comic book movies are changing, becoming more and more sophisticated in their use of CGI to evoke the precise styles and moods of comics. And Sin City, masterminded by maverick director-cinematographer-editor Robert Rodriguez, is destined to be cited as a landmark in that process. Frank Miller's hard-edged, un-gradated black and white graphic novel original is rendered very effectively in an ultra-noir of deep blacks and dazzling highlights, with selected areas picked out in pure luminous white - sticking plasters, jewellery - or striking hot and cold colours - red lips, orange flames, ice-blue eyes, and blood, which is sometimes shocking red or milky white. Using green-screen, sharply detailed figures are set in impressionistic cityscapes, bringing a unique filmic space to the comicbook atmosphere. The resulting world is like nothing we've seen before, overtly arty in look and content, involving a pastiche of crime styles from the past 60 or 70 years, but nonetheless gritty and viscerally compelling is its revisionist unity.

Whilst drawing on the motifs of 1950s' pulp fiction, it owes a considerable debt to Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, both in its use of three separate story strands, occasionally intersecting, and in its gleefully amoral celebration of extreme violence and degradation. Some may call it sick, misogynistic, a sign (or cause) of the decline in social values; and it does indeed reflect a cultural change in what is considered to be 'entertaining', taking noir elements and mixing them up with slasher-horror, kung-fu and violence-for-laughs in a fusion that is very 21st century.

In the first strand The Hard Goodbye, near-indestructible hulk Marv, superbly brought to life by Mickey Rourke, sets out to avenge himself on serial killer Kevin (Elijah Wood), who displays his female victim's heads on the wall like hunting trophies and eats their bodies. In That Yellow Bastard hard-bitten cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis) hunts the eponymous creature (Nick Stahl), another serial killer who this time has a taste for young girls. Much like in the other strand, Hartigan comes up against a convoluted network of official corruption against which he must battle, facing impossible odds. In The Big Fat Kill, Dwight (Clive Owen) gets entangled with renegade cop Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro), resulting in a battle for power in Old Town, a district run by statuesque prostitutes in fetish gear wielding automatic weapons (Swindon was never like this!). One memorable sequence, guest-directed by mate Quentin, features the freakiest conversation you'll ever see - between Jackie Boy and Dwight as he drives along a lonely road.

Despite similarities between the strands, the plotting keeps you on edge with its fast twists and turns, and the promise of nasty surprises lurking around every corner. The performances, and the archetypal look of each character, are very well achieved within the tight limits of expression available in such a film. Bruce Willis is more Humphrey Bogart-like than ever, Benicio Del Toro more of a sleazebag than ever, and Clive Owen finds a new level of cool in Dwight. On the female front, Rosario Dawson's hooker boss Gail and Jessica Alba's stripper Nancy make stunning sirens, whilst Devon Aoki's samurai warrior Miho recalls Gogo in Kill Bill: Vol.1.

The overall graphic novel realisation is extremely successful at all levels, and therein lays its possible weakness as a film, in that the shallowness inherent in the graphic medium comes across well too. There is a stark uniformity in characters' behaviour; with 'good' and 'bad' guys using violence first and last as a method of problem solving, and the women are all stereotypical fantasy babe figures with absolutely no warts at all. The sheer accumulation of beatings, shootings, amputations, decapitations, explodings, an electrocution, a hanging, and so on, does tend towards monotony eventually, though it's all very skilfully done. And whilst Sin City pays homage to Pulp Fiction, it doesn't ultimately have that film's narrative depth and ability to tie up its strands to create a memorable killer climax.

But hey, most of the audience aren't going to be bothered by any of that - they'll love it. Sin City is an icon of our times, a representative of a Tarantinoesque subgenre, fusing anything-goes pastiche with the kind of eclectic smoothing found in videogames. It points the way towards a new kind of 'action' movie where a postmodern angle is as much a part of the furniture as the car chase and the shoot-out. For a middling budget project it has already proved itself a financial winner, and that means there will be sequels (2 and 3 are already planned) and Sin City derivatives, as sure as night follows day.
Sin City (2005)
Directors: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Real men are violent bastards.

Real women are table dancers and whores.

Men who aren't violent bastards are hypocrites.

Women who aren't table dancers and whores are lesbians.

Lesbians are only lesbians because they're too ugly to find men.

Women who can take a kicking without complaining have character.

It would be incredibly easy to sit through the two-hour runtime of Sin City and take away little philosophical gems like the ones above. There are loads of them. You could publish them in one of those tiny books they keep next to the tills in bookshops and call it something like 'The Little Book of Misogyny'. That way, if ever you felt stressed out at work or by your partner you could open up your little book and read 'it's okay to fall in love with 11-year-old girls because they all grow up to be strippers' and just feel the stress melt away.

It would be easy... a little too easy, perhaps, but the fact remains that if you're the kind of person who is bothered by female characters that are only well rounded in the physical sense then there's ample room for you to be annoyed by this film. Defenders of this film have pointed to the source material as a defence of the film. 'But it's noir!' they moan... all I can say is 'Um... no it's not'.

The film doesn't really have a coherent plot; it's a collection of three short stories. We have mentally ill thug Marv (Mickey Rourke) trying to avenge the death of a prostitute, murderer Dwight (Clive Owen) helping some prostitutes dispose of the body of a dead policeman in order to stop their red light district being taken over by the mob, and these are bookended by Hartigan (Bruce Willis) saving a little girl from a sexual predator with powerful friends. All three of these plots are somewhat light and their shared setting allows Robert Rodriguez to try for a Pulp Fiction-style interweaving structure that doesn't quite work. The main drawback of the tripartite structure is that the film as a whole is rather poorly paced. Rather than building to a climax the film builds then recedes again and again giving a feel that's not so much frenetic as it is sedate. I regret that they chose to stick so closely to Frank Miller's work rather than take the approach favoured by the makers of the X-Men and Spider-Man films, namely plundering multiple plotlines and episodes to provide the material for scripts written especially for the films. Such an approach manifestly allows directors to adapt the comics to the screen while maintaining some control over issues such as pacing.

The performances are unmemorable but this is clearly down to character design. Marv is a ruthless killer who is trying to do the right thing, Hartigan is a ruthless killer who is trying to do the right thing and Dwight is... you've guessed it... a ruthless killer trying to do the right thing. Miller and Rodriguez also have all three 'monologue' (to borrow a term from The Incredibles) whenever they're shot or feel sick resulting in them all having very similar voices. A cynical and slow monotone is the continuous soundtrack of this film and it serves to further undermine the film's pacing.

Visually, the film is incredibly striking. Rodriguez has managed to produce what must be the most stylised film to come out of Hollywood for a decade at least. The film is shot in CGI-enhanced and moodily-lit black and white occasionally highlighted by a shock of white picking out the lenses in a pair of glasses, the reflective fabric of a tie or the pattern on a shirt. Eyes are lit with surreal blues and greens and lips and dresses are deep primary reds. When flesh is coloured its coloured in that peachy colour they use in artificially coloured black and white films. The result is a film that's stunning to look at and also serves to remind us much more of the film's source material than films like Ang Lee's Hulk, or American Splendour, which used camera tricks or actually filmed pages of comics to remind us of what the films were based upon. However, while this may please devotees of the comics, I think that the film suffers for its reverence.

Comics and films are very different media. What works on a page full of drawings might not work on film. Sin City is striking evidence of this. As comics are series of static images it is surprisingly difficult to effectively draw an exciting fight. As a result the fight scenes in Sin City are incredibly short and lead to something that is much easier to draw; death scenes. Characters die in a number of gruesome ways but the fights leading up to those deaths are invariably short and rather unexciting. This is slightly disappointing from Rodriguez, a man who cut his teeth directing outlandish action scenes in the Mariachi trilogy. Compare the firefight in the bar in Desperado to the Dwight sequence when fights are a matter of a samurai sword, a swastika-shaped shuriken or a gunshot. While this adds to the visual uniqueness of Sin City it sorely detracts from it as an action film.

Another issue is how talky the film is. People make huge speeches and monologue about how they feel about themselves, about the situation they're in, about their pasts, about their futures. Compare the characters in Sin City to the main character in the Bourne films. In those films, the hero is so highly trained that he acts without thinking. In this, film the characters talk to themselves endlessly about what they're going to do and how they feel about it. This is reminiscent of something James Elroy said about his books. He rejected the idea that they were noir because the heroes in the noir books are only bastards because deep down they're incredibly sensitive and misunderstood. Sin City is a nice example of this because there's more introspection on display than in a teenaged Goth's blog. This is another example of problems with adapting one media to another. Where noir novels have to be wordy because that's what novels are, Miller's comics took their cue from the books and Rodriguez followed Miller's lead. The problem is that noir cinema is a huge and rich genre of its own with a list of classics and must-sees as long as your arm. Bogart didn't spend the length of The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon introspecting, so why should Rourke or Willis?

Another issue is the sheer gratuitousness of this film. Sex, sexuality and gore run through this film in such an unsubtle way that it's almost astonishing. Nothing is suggested and everything is shown from the lesbian parole officer's erect nipples to Hartigan ripping someone's genitals off and punching their face until nothing but a fine paste remains. In a way the film is a bit like Kill Bill (Tarantino also directed a section of Sin City) that used violence so graphic that it came across as cartoonish and made the cinema viewers laugh rather than be repelled. Miller's work doesn't play violence for laughs and neither does Rodriguez'. The violence and sex is clearly stylised but it's not clear what style is being used or why it is being stylised. Femme fatales in noir fiction didn't dress like modern strippers and I'm pretty sure Peter Lorre never got his balls yanked off. Noir, because of when its heyday was, was largely suggestive rather than graphic. The result is that Sin City's gratuitous sex and violence seem less stylishly artful and more childishly provocative. This is why the charge of misogyny is so difficult to defend against, because the film is ultimately a feast for the eyes but is famine for the mind.

Having said that, the film isn't an unpleasant way to spend a couple of hours. People do get killed in incredibly ornate ways and the women do look astonishing. The bad guys are incredibly bad and get their just desserts. This is a film that completely bypasses the rational mind and fires its adolescent mix of sex and violence directly at the older reptilian parts of the brain. The film channels death, sex and revenge so effectively, I don't think you could make a more masculine piece of cinema. The problem is that those of us who don't necessarily yearn for the feel of animal skins on our backs and raw meat between our teeth will find little to amuse us. A pity.
Sin City - Bruce Willis

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Sin City - Rosario Dawson

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