Thanks to the kind intervention of The Scarlet Harlot, I was able to catch the advance screening of Frank Miller’s Sin City last night. As a long-time comic geek, this movie had me all kinds of oogala boogala over the prospect seeing Basin City’s most infamous residents live out their their hyperviolent lives on the big screen. The film geek in me was a hell of a lot more skeptical, however.
So what was the verdict?
|Violent Marv gets his Hulk on.|
Well, I was duly impressed and a little let down, to tell the truth.
Director Robert Rodriquez (Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Spy Kids 1 -1000, From Dusk till Dawn) was so intent on faithfully adapting uber-comic writer Frank Miller’s graphic novel series that he made Miller the co-director of the film . While most comic fans would swoon over the prospect of a series creator having equal creative control, I’m not so enamored of the talent that I can blindly think that what works in one medium works in another. But before I trod all over that aspect, let’s get the meat and gristle out of the way. Sin City weaves through the tale of hulking sociopath and dead-prostitute-avenger Marv (Mickey Rourke), dedicated cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis), and all around cool customer and mean motor scooter Dwight (Clive Owens) as they set out to right wrongs, punish the deserving, and spill a goodly amount of blood (their foes and their own), while laboring through the urban wasteland of fictional Basin City. Along the way we’re introduced to a seedy world of strippers, prostitutes, corrupt cops, silent assassins, pedophiles, and downright evil public figures, all so well armed it must bring a tear to Charlton Heston’s craggy eye.
Marv is on a bloody quest to avenge the death of Goldie, a prostitute who mistakenly assumed he could protect her. In the comic, he was known as Violent Marv, and he certainly lives up to the name in this adaptation. Dwight starts a gang-war to protect the girls of Old Town from the repercussions of a misguided killing, and Hartigan is trying to protect a young girl from a vengeful serial killer he couldn’t manage to stop 8 years before. Bookending the film are two short vignettes about a charming but efficient contract killer (Josh Hartnett).
Steeped equally in the hard-boiled canon of Mike Hammer and the blood soaked frenzy of the Asian revenge genre, Sin City is one incredibly gory and violent film. Seriously, this movie makes Kill Bill look like The Rainbow Brite Movie. Beheadings, beatings, endless shootings, and some leg-crossing inducing moments permeate through Sin City, drenching it in an ocean of hyper stylized gore. To that end, it’s almost a love song for bloody retribution on a level Sam Peckinpah would have cringed at. Combined with more supple female skin that I’ve seen on screen since the T&A glory days of the mid-80’s, the only thing saving this movie from NC-17 rating is hyper-cartoonish black and white look of the film, which almost perfectly matches Frank Miller’s original works. Visually the film is an absolute winner. Reversed silhouettes, sparse use of color, and beautifully realized effects made this a joy to watch from a purely artistic point of view. Fans of the series will quickly realize that nearly every shot is a direct lift of the comic and perfectly conveys Miller’s gritty style.
Which is actually where my problem with the film lies. Every single line of dialogue is from the comic. It was so faithful to the source that I could have left for 30 minutes and known exactly what was going on. Indeed, one fan behind me was reciting the lines moments before the characters would. As a fan of the series, I impressed by the truly exceptional casting of the roles, as each character was a perfect representation of their creator’s intention, but I can’t help wondering what the point of the whole endeavor was. Much like Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho, if Rodriguez didn’t have anything to add to the material why bother making it? I realize that statement constitutes fan-boy heresy of the highest order, but I long ago came to grips with the fact that director is an interpreter, not a re-enacter. For all the changes wrought by Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer, along with every other comic-book film director, I’m glad those artists showed us something different about the characters I’m so familiar with. Every fanboy wants a perfect rendition of his favorite story, but what’s the point of that, and how does it serve to widen the appreciation for the characters? The answer: It doesn’t. This film is a slobbering love fest for it’s source material, and it makes no bones about it. Whether the big name cast and visual hooks will be enough to engage the unfamiliar remains to be seen.
As a stand-alone film, Sin City is not much more than a cartoonish realization of most every guy’s most animal instinct. Talking is never an option, and why wound a guy when you can utterly erase him? And why just kill ‘em when you can literally pound them into the pavement? On that level the film does it’s job exceptionally well. Having to pick and choose the stories from such a larger source, Rodriquez and Miller don’t spend any time explaining their characters’ action beyond a superficial level, nor do they provide any clue on how these characters became the way they are. In Sin City everyone is just one bad day away from a complete homicidal rampage. But I suppose I’m asking too much of a film which would rather spend more effort on cool poses and hard-ass looks in between gunfights.
Some little highlights before I conclude this, lest anyone think that at the very least I didn’t enjoy the film on it’s most visceral level: As I said before, the casting is jaw-droppingly perfect for fans of the series. Non fans can be content to enjoy an immensely entertaining performance by Mickey Rourke, and really…how often can you say that? As I said previously, Rosario Dawson managed to be vulnerable, tough, scary and sexy as hell without fading into her characters inherent shallowness. Nick Stahl was excellent as a bona-fide monster, in that his pre-hideous screen time is equally as menacing and evil as his post. Bencio Del Toro obviously enjoyed the hell out of his role as bad apple Jack Rafferty, and that came across in his wild-eyed and creepy performance. But truly the most kudos have to go to former Hobbit Elijah Wood, who is doing an excellent job in picking roles capable of erasing Frodo Baggins from the mind of the collective consciousness.
I suppose I need to pick a side on this movie. I did enjoy it, but not for the reasons I expected to, just as I was turned off by those things that, as a long time comic fan, I should have been very happy with. This’ll find an audience with fans of stylized grit and gristle, but serious film-noir fans might find it’s inherent cartoonishness a bit much to take. But if you’re feeling the need for fast cars, faster women, big guns and lot’s of blood, stop in at Sin City and you’ll get your fill.