Saturday, August 20, 2005

Sin City (2005)

From Johnny Dynamite in the '50s to Ms. Tree in the '80s, hardboiled crime stories have been a part of the comic book world for quite some time. The style has even found its way into horror comics, as seen in DC's Hellblazer. However, that hardboiled noir style is most prevalent in Sin City, a series of stories created, written, and illustrated by comic book legend Frank Miller. First published by Dark Horse Comics in 1991, Sin City can be seen as a continuance of the dark, moody style that Miller used to save Daredevil from cancellation and cast Batman as a truly dark knight.

As one of the most influential writers and artists in the industry, one would figure that his work would have an effect on the cinematic adaptations of comic books. And in a way, he has. His depiction of Daredevil was carried over into that adaptation, and his influence can be seen in Tim Burton's two Batman movies. However, Miller withdrew from Hollywood, vowing to never let his own comics be adapted into a movie thanks to constant unwanted studio interference while he wrote the RoboCop sequels.

Enter Robert Rodriguez. A longtime fan of Miller's work, Rodriguez wanted to make a Sin City movie, but Miller refused to relinquish the movie rights. Rodriguez drafted Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton to appear in a short "proof of concept" film based on the Sin City short story "The Customer Is Always Right," and Miller enjoyed it enough to allow production to get underway. With both Rodriguez and Miller as directors (along with Quentin Tarantino helming one scene as a "special guest director"), the cinematic adaptation of Sin City was met with much fanfare when it hit theaters this past April. But is Sin City worth the hype, or is it just another case of a great comic getting adapted into a mediocre movie?

Our film is set in a fictional locale named Basin City, though its residents rarely refer to it by its given name, instead preferring its shortened form because it characterizes the city perfectly. Nearly everyone in power, from the politicians to the police to the city's religious hierarchy, are corrupt, and Sin City's citizens have become a jaded lot as a result. And in Sin City, hardly any crime is outrageous enough to shock or surprise anyone. As comic writer Mark Evanier once so eloquently put it, "When you live in Sin City, you can get shot fifty times, stabbed in the thorax, and have a few body parts chopped off. And then, if you're not careful, someone might try to kill you."

This wonderful little town is the setting for three interweaving episodes, each anchored around a particular male lead. The movie opens with the first half of the story titled "That Yellow Bastard," where we are introduced to John Hartigan (Bruce Willis). A detective pushing sixty and suffering from angina, Hartigan is an honest cop in a city where guys like him are few and far between. Before he settles into retirement, Hartigan wants to solve one last case and capture a serial-killing pedophile rapist named Junior Roark (Nick Stahl).

However, Hartigan's pursuit of Junior is complicated by Junior's family tree, because his father (Powers Boothe) is a very powerful Senator. The Roarks practically own Sin City, and are like a demented version of the Kennedys. Junior has chosen eleven-year-old Nancy Callahan (Makenzie Vega) to be his latest victim, and despite the protests of his partner Bob (Michael Madsen), Hartigan has taken it upon himself to stop him before he can kill Nancy.

The next story is an adaptation of "The Hard Goodbye," in which we follow a hulking brute named Marv (Mickey Rourke). He's a wee bit lacking in the looks department, so when we first meet him, he's on Cloud Nine because a gorgeous woman named Goldie (Jaime King) has offered herself to him. They spend the night together, getting ripped to the gills and having sex. Unfortunately, Marv's happiness doesn't last too long. He and Goldie fall asleep, and Marv awakens three hours later to discover his companion dead, murdered.

It isn't very long until he hears police sirens, at which point he realizes that he's been set up, because not enough time has passed for anyone but Marv and her killer to know Goldie is dead. Marv flees, swearing revenge as a way to repay Goldie for the kindness she showed him. His search for Goldie's murderer leads him down a crooked path, passing his perpetually topless parole officer Lucille (Carla Gugino) on a collision course with Goldie's twin sister Wendy (King, in a dual role), the mute karate-trained cannibal Kevin (Elijah Wood), and corrupt priest Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer).

Our third tale, entitled "The Big Fat Kill," begins in the apartment of a frightened barmaid named Shellie (Brittany Murphy), where a drunken former fling is pounding at her door. Shellie is comforted by her on-again/off-again boyfriend Dwight McCarthy (Clive Owen), who tells her to let the man and his entourage in while he hides in the bathroom. She opens the door for the drunk man, Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro), who proceeds to smack Shellie upside the head before heading to the bathroom.

As Jackie Boy relieves himself, Dwight steps out from behind the shower curtain and puts a straight razor to his face, telling him that if he ever so much as thinks Shellie's name again, Dwight will see to it that Jackie Boy loses a certain appendage. I'm sure you can guess which one. And to hammer that message home, Dwight shoves Jackie Boy's face into the unflushed toilet. Nothing like a face full of urine to make your point. Jackie Boy and his crew leave, with Dwight following them to make sure they don't hurt anybody.

Dwight tails them to Old Town, Sin City's red light district. Police are only allowed in Old Town if they're off duty and looking for a good time, and the prostitutes that are in charge of the neighborhood are just as armed and dangerous as any army. While Dwight meets up with Gail (Rosario Dawson), one of Old Town's toughest residents, Jackie Boy begins accosting a young girl named Becky (Alexis Bledel). He repeatedly asks for her services and she repeatedly turns him down, telling him that she works the day shift and he should come back in the morning. Jackie Boy doesn't take no for an answer, threatening to shoot Becky if she doesn't get in his car.

And believe me, pulling a gun on a lady in Old Town just isn't kosher. Another hooker named Miho (Devon Aoki) leaps down from a rooftop above them, introducing Jackie Boy and his crew to the business ends of her swords and throwing stars. Dwight and the girls raid their pockets, and that's when Dwight makes a rather chilling discovery: a police badge in Jackie Boy's coat. He wasn't just some goon, he was a cop. Jackie Boy's death means the end of an uneasy truce between the mob, the police, and the hookers of Old Town, so Dwight agrees to dispose of the bodies before the cops discover what happened. A group of mobsters led by the one-eyed Manute (Michael Clark Duncan) has other ideas, kidnapping Gail while sending a team of Irish terrorists after Dwight.

The second half of "That Yellow Bastard" concludes the film, resuming some eight years after the events of the first half. Hartigan was framed for raping Nancy and left to rot in a jail cell for that whole time, only finding relief in the carefully disguised letters he receives from Nancy every week of his incarceration. Once the letters stop, Hartigan begins to fear for the worst, especially when a deformed man with yellow skin and disgusting body odor delivers an envelope containing a severed finger. Hartigan falsely confesses to raping Nancy so that he may be granted parole, and after a little investigative work, tracks her to a ragged saloon where the 19-year-old Nancy (Jessica Alba) is a rather popular dancer. But by the looks of it, I think Nancy went to one of those dance schools where they teach the strippers to leave their clothes on.

Regardless, Hartigan notices the yellow freak at a corner booth and realizes the finger was just a bluff so he'd lead him right to Nancy. Hartigan and Nancy hit the road, with their yellow pursuer hot on their trail. He confronts Hartigan after tracking the pair to their safe house, revealing himself to be none other than a grossly disfigured Junior Roark. He explains that his father went far outside the boundaries of conventional science to heal the injuries his son suffered during his last encounter with Hartigan, but his work resulted in some rather unsavory side effects. Junior hangs Hartigan and leaves with Nancy to finish the job he started eight years prior, but Hartigan survives and heads straight to the Roark farm to save the closest thing to a daughter he's ever had.

I have nothing bad to say about Sin City. Any complaints I have are simply minor at best. The visual effects are absolutely brilliant, and the movie looks so much like the comic, it's frightening. With the original comics as their storyboards, directors Rodriguez and Miller use a chiaroscuro style to resemble the source material, interchanging starkly contrasting lights and shadows to make it look similar to Miller's artwork, and everything about it looks outstanding.

With reenactments of frames from the comics to how the characters look and talk, everything is right out of the comics and I couldn't be happier. Even the movie's harshest critics have to agree that Sin City is one of the most faithful and literal comic book adaptations ever made. Style frequently outweighs substance in movies like Sin City, but Rodriguez and Miller give us a menagerie of heroes, villains, and antiheroes, with the stories being engaging and never growing boring.

The audience becomes immersed in the urban inequity that is Sin City, hearkening back to the old detective movies of the '40s and '50s, but with more bells and whistles. Filtered in with the black-and-white are flashes of color. We see the red of a dress or a woman's lipstick, the blonde of Goldie's hair, the blue or green of someone's eyes, the yellow of Junior's skin. And then there's blood. Buckets and buckets of blood. We see blood either as a translucent white, mustard yellow (in the case of "That Yellow Bastard"), or more frequently, its natural red. To borrow from another reviewer, one could use the old line "black and white and red all over" to describe Sin City, which I find to be a rather astute observation. One may be thrown off by all the stylized violence, but it can get so over-the-top that it actually becomes fun.

I'm also a believer in the idea that a good movie needs a good score. While the song "Cells" by British band The Servant may be most connected with Sin City thanks to its use in the movie's promotional campaign (though it sadly does not appear in the movie), the movie possesses an excellent musical score composed by Rodriguez, with a little help from John Debney and Graeme Revell. The electro-infused blues score casts a brooding shadow over the film, with its use of saxophones and occasional dash of bongo drums evoking the genre's roots.

While I thought the dialogue was silly and borderline pretentious at times, it can be forgiven because it still manages to be entertaining. Besides, there are movies out there with worse dialogue, and this is a film noir anyway. A film noir without pretentious dialogue is like a Road Runner cartoon without Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff. The script, written by God knows who (no writers are credited, though one can assume that it was penned by Rodriguez and/or Miller), presents us with quite a few fun moments and memorable lines straight out of the comics. I'd buy a copy of the screenplay if it were published, but I can just buy the comics instead.

I'd also like to commend the cast for doing a brilliant job. Each of the three male leads are superb, as are their supporting cast. With a star-studded film like this, one would think it would lapse into moments like, "Look, Bruce Willis! Now here's Jessica Alba! And how about that Elijah Wood? Remember him from the Lord of the Rings trilogy?" But the movie is so engrossing, it becomes not an exercise in watching actors, but in watching characters. I will say that I enjoyed everyone, some more than others (did Devon Aoki have any lines?), but perhaps the brightest star in the cast is Mickey Rourke as Marv. I ended up enjoying "The Hard Goodbye" the most out of all the stories, and it was mainly because of him. He's easily my favorite character, all because of Rourke's performance.

I'd also like to give a big thumbs up to Elijah Wood, who gets as far away from Frodo as he can in his portrayal of Kevin. I'll actually go out on a limb and call Kevin the coolest villain since the T-1000 in Terminator 2 and Agent Smith from the Matrix trilogy. Wood doesn't have any dialogue, but he still manages to be unbelievably creepy, even downright scary at times.

Though I do wonder, in regards to the cast... am I the only one who thought Bruce Willis looks nowhere near as old has he should have been, or that Jessica Alba didn't look anywhere near as young as she should have been? And am I the only one who wasn't completely buying Clive Owen's American accent?

This is very much a Robert Rodriguez movie, and while one could make the argument that Frank Miller's directorial credit is merely honorary, the film is so faithful to his work that it only makes sense to list him too. In fact, Rodriguez was so adamant about giving Miller credit as a director that he had to quit the Director's Guild in order to do it (since the DGA only allows bona fide teams like Andy and Larry Wachowski to receive co-director credits). No matter who gets credit as director, everyone involved should be proud of themselves for creating a true work of art.

If you're the kind of person that refuses to watch a movie that's in black and white, no matter how good it may be, you're really cheating yourself out of seeing one of the best movies of 2005. Roger Ebert said in his review, "This isn't an adaptation of a comic book; it's like a comic book brought to life and pumped with steroids." And you know what? He's correct. Sin City is a triumph of imagination and filmmaking, and is worth all the praise it gets.

Final Rating: *****