Saturday, April 2, 2005

SIN CITY Is the Graphic Novel Brought to Life

Danny's Rant-Style Sin City Review:

Sin City is a graphic novel come to life. More so than any previous comic-to-film adaptation, this is the real deal. It's not that the characters from Sin City were adapted. It's not that the basic iconography or plot was adapted. Nope. This IS Frank Miller's Sin City. This is Frank Miller's gritty, chiaroscuro pencils in three dimensions. This is Frank Miller's noir-ish, over-the-top thought captions read aloud as a kind of running inner monologue of the characters. This is what a comic book movie should look like, a movie that succesfully celebrates the medium from which it is derived, in look, feel, and soul.

The movie follows three seperate but intertwining stories, all set in the rain-soaked, grimy streets of Sin City. But to be honest, it isn't the details of the plot that are really important here. The amazing, violent, and graphic imagery is what makes this movie, along with a number of amazing performances.

The first thing you'll notice about the movie is the look. Shot on greenscreen, this is one of the most artfully shot movies you'll ever see. It literally opens up whole new ways of presenting a story on film. Just as Frank Miller's comic book pencils have a stark, simple, gritty look, so too does everyone and everything in this film, giving it a quasi-animated feel that is unlike anything I've ever seen before on the screen. A step up from the somewhat disjointed use of greenscreen in Sky Captain, Sin City's black and white world is a nightmare come to life, with shocking splashes of vibrant color in just the right places. You can't take your eyes off this movie -visually, it is amazing.

Acting-wise, you couldn't ask for a better cast. First and foremost, Mickey Roarke steals the show as Marv. Under a thick layer of makeup and prosthetics, Roarke's scenes in the movie as Marv are easily the film's highlights. A mixture of Hellboy, Dirty Harry, and Frankenstein, Marv is a confused, lonely sould who also happens to be a tough as nails ass-kicker. Marv is pitted against Elijah Wood as a mute serial killer with whited-out eyes, and the legendary Rutger Hauer as a carnivorous man of the cloth. Forget Frodo Baggins. This movie will make you believe that Elijah Wood is just about the scariest, most sadistic bastard that ever lived. And we all know not to mess with Rutger Hauer. Marv's scenes are a surreal, action-packed trip into insanity, a kind of Memento meets The Incredible Hulk roller coaster ride that, basically, friggin rocks. The other two leads, Bruce Willis and Clive Owen, are excellent as well, though both of their segments suffer a bit in that they fail to live up to the pure excitement and awesomeness of Marv's portion of the film. Clive Owen, however, is surrounded by an amazing supporting cast for his scenes. There's Benicio Del Toro as an obnoxious undercover cop, Britanny Murphy as a sad bartender, and Rosario Dawson as the leader of a band of prostitute-warriors. Yup, you read that right. Just to give you an idea of how wonderfully twisted Clive Owen-as-Dwight's segment is, it features said Rosario Dawson in full dominatrix getup, a headless Del Toro, a ninja prostitute, Nazi thugs, a place called the "tarpits" that are some kind of dinosaur burial ground, midgets, and oh yeah, Rory Gilmore as an underage femme fatale. Yikes, I knew this movie had an impressive cast but I did a double take when I saw Yale-student and overall goodgirl Rory in full on street-walker mode sporting a devious smile and eyes that shone with bad intent. Bruce Willis' segment is perhaps the weakest of the three, though it of course has its moments. Jessica Alba is surprisingly excellent as a girl who was saved by Willis' grizzled cop character when she was only eight years old. Michael Madsen is a little TOO over the top in his role as Willis' slimy partner, which is saying a lot in this movie, and some of the slower-paced scenes in this part of the movie do drag a bit. But Willis plays his part well and he faces an enemy who is so disgustingly over the top grotesque and evil that it's almost painful to watch him -- Nick Stahl as the Yellow Bastard - a monstrous freak who is literally bright yellow. Let's just say that even after all the crazy violence in this film, the Yellow Bastard cranks things up a notch.

And that is definitely going to be a point of contention with this movie. Is it too violent? I think not - because if any movie, if any vision, ever was meant to be disgustingly, brutally violent, it was Frank Miller's Sin City, which has a darkly humorous sense of nihilism behind its endless series of severed limbs, gun battles, and hand to hand brawls. This is Sin City, the worst place on earth, where only a sadist can really live, where it's kill or be killed. This movie celebrates violence, in a way, but it also shows its futility. Nearly everyone in the film ends up dead or miserable, and that's kind of the point.

Another point of contention is how stylized this film is. It straddles the line between film noir dialogue and cartoonish, almost humorous exchanges between its characters. Personally, I think it works. While one or two lines are just TOO cartoony ("he's got a bum ticker."), this isn't a Kevin Smith movie, it's not about realistic conversations. It's meant to have that pulp feel. Sin City is about channeling Dashell Hammett and Mickey Spillane, except on steroids and acid. unlike Kill Bill, however, its not directly paying tribute to anything, it's not really referencing any outside sources. It's one man's vision brought to life.

The biggest problem with the movie isn't the violence or the stylized dialogue, but the story structure. The three tales in and of themselves have a very nice, almost literary sense of symmetry and closure. The use of repeated phrases ("An old man dies, a young girl lives.") gives some really nice closure to the individual stories, but taken as a whole, the movie kind of stuggles to work as one cohesive film. Two bookend scenes featuring Josh Hartnett do a decent job of setting up and wrapping up the movie respectively, but ultimately things seem a little overly condensed. It's a tribute to the movie's great performances that you kind of wish, for example, that the whole movie could just be about Marv. In comics this approach can work because their serialized nature means that we as readers assume there will be more Sin City stories to come. But a movie is a more self-contained experience. We want to know everything there is to know about the characters, and see their journeys from start to finish. That is my one real complaint with Sin City - no real closure to the movie as a whole, even though the stories did end tightly in and of themselves.

In the end, unless you have a weak stomach for violence, you have gotta see this movie. It's not as purely fun and kickass as Kill Bill or as simple and classically presented as classic film noirs like The Maltese Falcon or Chinatown. But visually it is groundbreaking, and character-wise you'll be left with the images of Marv, Dwight, The Yellow Bastard, and an army of bad-ass hookers burned in your brain long after you've seen the movie. And despite how ugly, violent, and deadly Sin City is, you'll realize that despite it all, you wouldn't mind going back there for another visit.

My grade: A