Dark Night Returns

Black and white and red all over

The sun never shines in Sin City—but then Sin City doesn't really need light. Although populated by a gaggle of Hollywood meat puppets, this slick and brutal Robert Rodriguez adaptation of Frank Miller's famously "grim and gritty" graphic novels is strictly post-photographic.

Reality is virtual. Shot on DV in black-is-black and white-on-white with strategic swatches of color—most often blood-red—Sin City has its digitally enhanced performers cavorting through hyper-noir CGI "sets." The atmosphere is the landscape, and the narrative as well. Sin City tells three intertwined tales of the world's toughest town—a place populated by crooked cops, corrupt pols, depraved priests, pedophiliac cannibals, and a super-abundance of bodacious thong-snapping bondage babes.

Even a sweet little girl grows up to be an exotic dancer in a low-life dive, and every pickup is a prelude to murder. The movie's three protagonists are the last good cop in Sin City (Bruce Willis), a surgically altered private eye (Clive Owen), and most spectacularly, the hulk-like, borderline-psychotic killing machine Marv (Mickey Rourke, rendered unrecognizable with a prosthetic profile). Their thought balloons rule, in voice-overs spiced by hard-boiled bons mots: "Then it hits me like a kick in the nuts."

Directors' cut: Owen and Del Toro
photo: Dimension Films
Directors' cut: Owen and Del Toro

Nuts it is, fellas—and ain't it cool? A female stream of consciousness is about as likely to be found in Sin City as a rainbow sign or a visit from the Teletubbies. Chivalry, however, is not dead. Each of the three stories (which include Miller's first, starring Marv) is predicated on a 12-year-old boy's fantasy of the lone, misappreciated tough guy protecting or avenging some vulnerable little lady—even, or rather especially, if she's a kickass Amazon hooker in full circus regalia.

Miller, who has a cameo as a degenerate padre, is a comic-book god for his 1980s reinvention of Batman, among others things, and Rodriguez reportedly quit the Directors Guild to ensure that the artist got co-credit; his approach to Miller's material is nothing short of reverential. Sin City aspires to be a living comic book and it certainly has a look. Everything from Marv's iridescent bandages to the wounds that explode like Day-Glo bird shit is a design element. The filmmakers have taken evident pains to approximate Miller's aggressively stark high-contrast palette—no shades of gray—and fondness for dynamic, receding planes. But movies are not comics, and once the shock of recognition wears off, this literalism has an oppressively overwrought effect—not unlike the hyper-real Plan Nine reconstruction in Tim Burton's Ed Wood.

Sin City's loop-the-loop narrative structure owes something to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. (People more acute than I have noticed some peculiar temporal inconsistencies—the fan sites will no doubt tell us if these are intentional.) But Sin City lacks the human interest, not to be confused with humanism, that Pulp Fiction had in abundance. As if to underscore the fact, Tarantino guest-directed a scene. It's readily recognizable as the only one in which the dialogue has the slightest conviction, and the actors (Owen and Benicio Del Toro) seem to play off each other, even if one is the other's hallucination. It also has the subtlest use of color and is the only scene that made me laugh.

Not that Sin City doesn't invite you to chuckle—there is, after all, an underwater perspective of Del Toro being dunked in a toilet bowl. The problem is that the humor is less predicated on violence than sadism. Limbs are sliced, jaws cracked, faces regularly beaten to a bloody pulp. There's an exceptionally graphic electric-chair scene—"Is that the best you can do, you pansies?" the executionee laughs as the top of his head sizzles off—and, in another quasi–money shot, Rosario Dawson bites a chunk out of a stoolie's neck. Played for laughs, it's an image that evokes the EC horror comics of the early '50s—as do the decapitated heads that are regularly held up by their hair.

Pulp Fiction by rote, Sin City ultimately twists back into its first story. But more than just the narrative comes full circle—in a way it's the history of pulp. All the visual ideas that the savvy comic-book artists of the '40s swiped from Citizen Kane return as the zombie accoutrements of pure digitalia. For all its graphic splendor, watching Sin City is like spending two hours in a state-of-the-art wax museum. Rodriguez loves his material so much that he embalmed it.

 
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