March 31, 2005
In their cartoonishly brutal crime saga “Sin City,” directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller envision a meat-grinder urban landscape populated by cannibal priests, predatory cops, rampaging felons and prostitutes who mete out bloody justice with swords and machine guns.
The place is so carnivorous, even the good guys take an occasional bite.
Faithful admirers of Rodriguez (“El Mariachi”) and his charnel-house brand of mayhem will surely be tickled by his latest offering (especially after the filmmaker's four-year “Spy Kids” detour). Even so, the movie is a personal milestone — paired with Miller, the pop revisionist who penned the “Sin City” graphic novel series, Rodriguez achieves a whole new level of expressive artistry. Shot in scintillating black and white, furnished with computer-generated backdrops and dramatic splashes of color, “Sin City” constitutes one of the boldest pursuits of cinematic imagination in recent history. It's splendid, sordid poetry.
Rodriguez, who surrendered his Director's Guild membership to give Miller a rare co-credit, uses his vast ensemble cast like twine, lacing them throughout a series of free-standing vignettes that unfold in a fictional metropolis known as Basin City. In one thread, Bruce Willis (“Pulp Fiction”) plays Hartigan, an aging homicide detective with a bum ticker who unfairly lands in jail after busting a child abduction ring headed by an evil rich boy (Nick Stahl, later reborn as a vengeful yellow mutant).
In another episode, a scowling vigilante named Dwight (Clive Owen from “Closer”) teams up with a clan of self-governing hookers (played variously by Rosario Dawson, Devon Aoki and Alexis Bledel) to conceal the murder of a corrupt undercover cop (Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro, wonderful) and forestall a turf war.
Though averse to slow motion, Rodriguez appears to have a healthy chunk of Sam Peckinpah in his repertoire, particularly when Dwight finds himself playing courier with the dirty cop's decapitated noggin, a humorous tip of the hat to Peckinpah's “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974). As a screenwriter, Rodriguez sticks to the tossy, hardscrabble noir dialogue of Miller's original comic. The wordplay suits the actors (and overall tenor of the piece) nicely, except in the case of Michael Madsen (“Kill Bill”), playing Hartigan's two-timing partner. A first-rate character actor, Madsen is just a bit too knowing in his delivery of the lines, a smidge too conscious of the script's gumshoe stiltedness.
Not so with Mickey Rourke, the one-time Hollywood bad boy and would-be pugilist who flamed out after a successful career in the 1980s (“Wild Orchid,” “Angel Heart”). As Marv, a hulking, near-invincible mass of scar tissue and psychosis obsessed with hunting down his lover's bookish killer (Elijah Wood), Rourke steals the movie from his saner, more steadily employed co-stars. Violent yet strangely virtuous (he likes torturing hit men because he doesn't have to feel bad about making them scream), Marv is a roundly enthralling character, funny and tragic in the best comic book tradition.
One casting complaint: Rodriguez seems to have selected his female cast more for their looks (I'm still not convinced that model-actress Aoki isn't just some sophisticated imaging program) than their screen presence. Two exceptions are Brittany Murphy (“8 Mile”) as Dwight's spunky cocktail waitress girlfriend and “Spy Kids” mainstay Carla Gugino, bada-bing sexy as Marv's chummy parole officer. Jessica Alba, as Hartigan's grown-up rescue-ee, provides the requisite eye candy.
The images in “Sin City” are so precisely choreographed, one is almost inclined to recall them as comic book panels. Rodriguez's discrete use of color — some green eyes here, a red leaf there — enhances the artifice; watching “Sin City” produces the same vivid, hyper-layered effect as the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein. Rodriguez cohort Quentin Tarantino (“From Dusk Till Dawn”) guest-directs one of the scenes, a hallucinatory conversation between Owen and Del Toro's corpse.
“Sin City” is for the heartiest cinematic palates only. The repeating thematic cycles of dismemberment, flesh consumption and (this one is really odd) toilet bowl dunkings are spaced out musically, as if Rodriguez were composing some sort of ode to bloodshed.
Speaking of blood, it's interesting to note that it flows completely white — the city's one pure agent, wiping away the corruption and greed and the very movie itself.