CINEMA CLASSICS #7: Sin City (2005)

Who made it?: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, Quentin Tarantino (Directors), Miller (Writer), Elizabeth Avellan (Producer)

Who’s in it?: Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Benicio Del Toro, Carla Gugino, Rutger Hauer.

Tag-line: “Walk down the right back alley in Sin City and you can find anything.”

IMDb rating: 8.3/10 (Top 250 #111).

Sin City set a new benchmark for comic book adaptations on film, as well as defining itself as a modern film noir (or “hyper-noir,” if you will). It is somewhat of an anomaly – a cult entity that satisfied newcomers and converts alike with its breathless exuberance and impressive cast; resulting in a staggering box office gross that exceeded all expectations for an R-rated film. It also impressed critics, a difficult group to seduce with any kind of exploitation, who recognised its peculiar, blood-splattered charms.

Bursting from the imagination of acclaimed graphic novelist Frank Miller, Sin City is a nightmarish twist on the hard-boiled detective stories popularised by Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. It was film noir on the page. He tells stories about anti-heroes and prostitutes with hearts of gold, who eke out their short-lives in Basin City, where there’s a strip bar on every corner and the police are corrupt. A big hit for publisher Dark Horse, Sin City has been popular with comic readers ever since it first appeared in 1991. While Stan Lee enjoyed telling light and breezy adventure yarns, Miller was more interested in tossing political correctness aside and indulging in his wildest fantasies.

Rodriguez and Miller on set

Naturally, it was a perfect world to represent on film. Miller had been approached by many filmmakers since his creation first appeared, and he turned all of them down. He wasn’t going to let a Hollywood hot-shot ruin his moralistic vision. But then Robert Rodriguez knocked on his door. The Desperado director promised Miller the most faithful adaptation ever – a film that used the graphic novels as a script, with each panel acting as his storyboard. Digital technology would also be employed. Few sets were constructed. Only cars and guns acted as props. Rodriguez used the comic book imagery and nothing more. But that’s not all – Miller found himself calling the shots with Rodriguez on set. The result is one of the most intoxicating films in recent history.

The Maverick’s desire to grapple Miller’s work had been a career-long goal. “I’ve been buying Sin City since 1992, and I always wanted to do a film noir,” Rodriguez stated in 2005. “After doing the Spy Kids movies and worrying so much about lighting and technology, I realised I could make this movie now. It was visual storytelling that worked so well on the page…I thought it would work exactly the same way on the screen.”

After convincing Miller to sign away the rights (by shooting a scene from the source material), Rodriguez once again joined forces with Dimension Films; Miramax’s genre division that had produced his horror/comedy From Dusk Till Dawn (1995). Surprisingly, the studio was interested in the seemingly non-commercial material, and Rodriguez started work at his own Troublemaker Studios (in other words, at his home in Texas). As ever, a tight budget never hindered his creativity.

There’s a thousand stories in the naked city and Sin City tells three of them; separate narratives that barely intertwine. No wonder some people called it “the new Pulp Fiction.” While both films share a portmanteau structure and Tarantino’s involvement, Sin City is pretty far removed from that 1994 classic.

First of all, there’s “The Hard Goodbye,” in which gargantuan thug Marv (Mickey Rourke) hunts down the killer of a prostitute, Goldie (Jaime King), who treated the brute to a night of passion. Ex-cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis) also has a score to settle. Years ago, he vowed to protect Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) from the hands of demonic paedophile Roark Jr. (Nick Stahl), in “That Yellow Bastard.” Now he’s back to finish him off – a job that takes him to the top of Basin City’s twisted hierarchy. And there’s also Dwight (Clive Owen) in “The Big Fat Kill,” a man who spends his nights defending the women of Old Town from the rotten police force.

While the stories and characters deliver a great deal of enjoyment, Sin City’s main asset is the truly hypnotic imagery. Six years on, the film is still jaw-droppingly beautiful. In terms of technological accomplishments, Rodriguez really upped the ante here. Of course it wasn’t the first time that a filmmaker placed actors into an animated backdrop; the misunderstood Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) did it effectively, and so did foreign classic Immortel (ad vitam). But the technique reached its zenith in Sin City.

Using HD cameras with digital environments and effects, Rodriguez made a bold argument for leaving celluloid behind. The computer realm makes it possible to do just about anything, and at half the cost of a shot-on-film production (not that we should leave it behind completely). Sin City was a bargain at $45 million, managing to make the larger-scale films released that summer look small in comparison. We’d never seen anything quite like this, and the photography is still Sin City‘s greatest accomplishment.

The opening scene, or prologue, establishes the comic book aesthetic to amazing effect. The black-and-white of classic noir is mixed with splashes of dazzling colour, which only deepens the gritty world Miller has created (bringing to mind the earlier Pleasantville, which featured a similar trick). Of course, such visual excess forms a barrier between the audience and the film – never once do we treat the picture seriously, meaning that an emotional attachment to the characters is missing. It’s a ride that speeds a mile-a-minute, but it never moves. At its best, the film is a mere big-budget crowd-pleaser, yet there’s nothing wrong with that.

The film also peaks early during “The Hard Goodbye,” which resurrected Rourke’s career with his now-iconic performance. He’s truly the perfect fit for Marv. If any of the cast members embodied their character completely, it’s him. Under a ton of prosthetics, Rourke dominates the screen throughout his story, which is easily the best in the film. Marv is an unpredictable juggernaut, and like most of Sin City‘s characters, he attains anti-hero status. He’s clearly insane; needing pills to treat his “condition”, which are given to him by his lesbian parole officer, Lucille (the luminous Carla Gugino). Therefore, we’re never sure if the events we’re seeing are actually happening, or if Marv is getting confused. He’s two steps away from becoming a grade-A psychopath, but he still possesses his own moral code: he’ll only kill someone if they deserve it, and he treats women with respect.

Giving the chapter a hint of horror, is the wonderfully cast-against-type Elijah Wood – brilliant as the silent cannibal, Kevin. He’s probably the most haunting head-case in Basin City’s rogue’s gallery; pure evil, emotionless and without remorse. You almost have to remind yourself that it’s Frodo Baggins.

The Big Fat Kill ups-the-ante in terms of on-screen spectacle. Entering the fray, is Dwight (played with the right tone by Owen), a murderer on the run who has to protect Old Town from the deranged Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro), a drunken cop on the wrong side of the law. Naturally, everything goes belly up, igniting a turf war between the hookers and the Basin City authorities. The chapter revels in poking fun at the grotesque material – the supposedly dead Jackie Boy continues to “live on” with a pistol embedded in his forehead – but it’s so exciting, the ridiculousness of the scenario never spoils the ride. By now, the audience has been so desensitized by the violence that we don’t question the “reality” of this world any more. We’re perfectly content to let the characters have their way.

For some reason, Dwight’s tale is the most heavily criticised in the film, despite its polished set-pieces. The treatment of women in the film annoyed a few humorless critics. Some have said it’s a very exploitative view of women – lest we forget the profession of these characters – but none of them are depicted as weak in any way. They stand up for their values and are fully prepared to knock seven bells of crap out of anyone standing in their way. That’s nothing new, but at least Miller shows a love for them, even if the stories come from the minds of his male protagonists. But does the representation of women on film really need to be discussed in a review of Sin City?

When I think about “The Big Fat Kill,” I don’t necessarily think about Rosario Dawson in that amazing outfit (although she’s certainly a memorable image). I think about the blood-thirsty attack on Jackie Boy and his cronies (perpetrated by Devon Aoki’s “deadly little Miho”), in which limbs fly, and arterial spray, err, sprays. Or the extravagant conclusion, in which an alleyway of seedy criminals are mowed down by a barrage of machine-gun fire. It’s certainly the most OTT vignette in the film, and like the others, won’t be easily forgotten.

It also features Quentin Tarantino’s contribution as “Special Guest Director.” I’ve always thought that giving the auteur such a title was baloney – a cheap marketing tool to entice more viewers to the film. As many of you will already know, his involvement amounts to one scene, in which Dwight escorts Jackie Boy’s body to the pits. It’s a fun excursion into the surreal, as Dwight imagines the very-dead JB is talking to him.

Much of the emotion is left for the last act, and “That Yellow Bastard” works best as a melodrama; albeit one smothered in noir conventions. Willis’ cop Hartigan is typical of the genre – a world-weary type with “a bum ticker,” who makes it his mission in life to stop the evil Roark Jr. (Stahl). The latter was about to molest poor Nancy (Mackenzie Vega, in the early scenes), before Hartigan arrived on the scene; blowing off the creep’s nuts in the process. Unfortunately, Junior’s dad is a senator, and Hartigan is thrown in jail. 8 years pass, and as you’d expect, he still holds a grudge. Out of jail, he vows to protect the grown-up Nancy (Alba) from Junior once again; who is now a disfigured and yellow-skinned freak…

The violence reaches its peak here, and I can’t remember the last time a screen legend tore off someone’s genitals. Willis seems to take such grand guignol theatrics in his stride, and he’s got the ideal face for noir, not to mention the character. He’s an old-hand when it comes to cop roles, but he brings enough tortured humanity to Hartigan to make him different to John McClane. His performance is nicely controlled, and he has excellent chemistry with Alba. She isn’t a great actress, but she fits Nancy like a glove. Yet, in my opinion, they are both overshadowed by Stahl, who takes great relish in portraying the fiend of the title. He’s so evil; you can’t wait to see him buy it.

Compared to Dwight’s chapter, the finale is much stronger visually. That Yellow Bastard boasts the best imagery in the film. It depicts Basin City during a snow-storm, which only helps to make the film look even more remarkable. Those white backgrounds also help to make Junior’s bile-coloured skin standout even more. But the tale really compels for one simple reason – Hartigan is the only “decent” character in Miller’s universe; the fact that his story begins and ends the film isn’t an accident. He’s a self-sacrificing man and the city’s last good cop. He did his time in the hope that Nancy would survive, and now he’s prepared to give up his life to ensure her survival.

It also highlights the common thread between the three main characters – they’re “knights” trying to rescue damsels in distress. Dwight states that Marv would be best-suited on an ancient battlefield; Gail (Dawson) refers to Dwight as Lancelot, and Hartigan compares himself to Galahad when charging into the lion’s den. Miller is giving his characters a mythic status, and while all of them are very different, they all possess the same drive and desires. They’re also suckers for women. There’s some interesting sub-text to be found there…

With a truly electric supporting cast, including Rutger Hauer, the late Brittany Murphy, Micheal Clarke Duncan and Powers Booth, Sin City never fails to entertain. However, I’d be lying if I said it was a perfect brew, no matter how much I’d like to say so. At 124-minutes, it was a little too long for theatrical exhibition, making it a perfect film for video (if you have the means, see it on Blu-Ray).

I also feel that the score by Rodriguez, John Debney and Graeme Revell is too generic for its own good, with the exception of the atmospheric title theme. But ignore such churlish complaints. Sin City is a fascinating film, regardless. It’s pure cinema and is astonishing as a technical showcase. What Rodriguez and Miller achieved is something to savour – a piece of pulp cinematic art that certainly deserves the fan-boy praise. As an adaptation, it’s flawless. Read the graphic novels and you’ll be shocked at how close the two mediums are. As a coherent motion picture it’s not without fault, but it’s still a masterpiece. It’s an invigorating slice of exploitation that won me over completely.

Never has sinning looked so good…

Best Scene

Everyone will have their own “Best Scene” in Sin City, but for my money, Marv’s bone-crushing escape from the police wins the prize. He’s one tough son of a bitch.

Choice Quote

A bit of voice-over from Dwight almost sums-up my feelings on the film:

“The Valkyrie at my side is shouting and laughing with the pure, hateful, bloodthirsty joy of the slaughter… and so am I.”

Useless Trivia

  • Frank Miller has a cameo appearance as the priest killed by Marv.
  • The swords used by Miho are the same ones from Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003).
  • One of the guns used by Hartigan is a Beretta M93R, a gun modified and then used in the RoboCop movies. Miller wrote RoboCop 2 (1990) and RoboCop 3 (1993).
  • Despite appearing in all three of the major stories, Brittany Murphy filmed all of her scenes in one day.
  • On a night between filming days, Rodriguez put on a rock concert at a local nightclub. His own band was the opening act, and the headliner was Bruce Willis and his band, The Accelerators. The concert was attended by Sin City‘s cast and crew, as well as the cast and crew of A Scanner Darkly, which was filming nearby at the same time. All profits from the show were donated to charity.

About Dave James

Editor-in-Chief @ Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator.
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