Review: Sin City

Someone thought at some point, wouldn't it be cool if we turned some of Frank Miller's Sin City comics (The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill, That Yellow Bastard, and the short story "The Customer is Always Right" from The Babe Wore Red which was collected in Booze, Broads, & Bullets) into movies? And that person thought, wouldn't it be cool if we just used the comics as storyboards, and kept everything exactly as it looked in the comic book? That person was Robert Rodriguez, and yes, it would.

Sin City is the purest comic book movie ever because, well, Rodriguez held a huge torch up behind Frank Miller's comic book pages and projected them onto a film negative with so much heat that the images seared themselves on in black and white, like a brand on a cow's ass. Well, not exactly, but perhaps that's how one of the characters from Sin City might describe it. I haven't read the Sin City comics in many years, but some shots in the movie were so evocative of Miller's drawings that they summoned individual panels from my memory.

The movie is a montage of stories, loosely connected in plot, tightly connected in style. This is pulp fiction, with hard-boiled anti-heroes and film noir conventions. Wisely, instead of recreating film noir, which, in modern times, can seem mannered, even hokey, Miller and Rodriguez push the genre's conventions to their limits, and what emerges is something that is both homage and loving parody, like pushing film four stops and then exposing it to within an inch of its life.

Dialogue consists of sentences that are long and florid when they should be short, and clipped when you expect to hear more. Instead of "I failed miserably", we're given "I was about as successful as a palsy performing brain surgery with a pipe wrench." It's hokey, but unabashedly so, like the hard-boiled dialogue of old film noir detectives, and so it elicits affectionate chuckles.

The cinematography, like the rest of the movie, is high contrast, extreme. Black and white can be used to depict stark and drab reality, or it can be used as it is here, in a gothic and hyper-emotional manner, almost like high contrast color film. Occasional splashes of color stand out against the chiaroscuro backgrounds and catch the eye, each primary color representing its traditional connotations. Red for sex, blood, danger, lust, and temptation. Yellow for sickness, perversion. The movie was shot almost entirely in front of green screen, like Casshern or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but since it's intended to look like Miller's stylized panels rather than a hyper realistic background, the effects do not distract; they attract. And dazzle. Unlike with other heavily green-screened movies, like Episode I, the actors here don't seem wooden because they're not reacting to sets that aren't there, they're playing at pulpy characters whose manners are so exaggerated that all the green screen around them could muddle the archetypes in their heads. Many movies relying heavily on green-screen and digital animation have seemed restricted in soul, but Rodriguez is a true believer who may have unlocked the liberating potential of such filmmaking methods, akin to traditional animation.

The actors have a grand old time. If you put actors like Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson (feeling naughty), Benicio Del Toro, and Clive Owen in a blender, pureed them, then distilled them a half dozen times, you'd get something like the characters they play in the movie. Nothing subtle about it, and it won't win any Oscars, but it's pure and about 100 proof. Given Rodriguez's devotion to realizing Miller's vision with as much accuracy as possible, it helps that many of the actors resemble Miller's drawn renditions. Those who aren't are rendered so through makeup. The wardrobes, especially for the women, are wicked and fun. When the dames aren't wearing leather, fishnet, or chains, they're wearing shadows striped with moonlight and streetlight. Sexy.

Pulp fiction need not be great cinema, but it has to be fun. Miller loved his pulp fiction and poured it into his Sin City, which Rodriguez loved and turned into a film short, which Miller loved so he granted Rodriguez the rights to turn it into a movie. That same short, which opens the movie, so impressed other actors that they showed up in droves and hammed it up for the camera. Lots of love and fun to go around, and it comes through.

Trivia: In the movie, Frank Miller plays a priest who gets, well, [teeny spoiler ahead.............] shot through the head. This is a spoiler only if you don't know anything of the stories, since most everyone gets shot through the head in Sin City. If they're lucky. It's quick and painless, especially compared to having your appendages sawed off and then being fed to a rabid dog that chews out your entrails.

More trivia: Rodriguez has said he plans to direct all of Miller's Sin City stories, and Johnny Depp was originally to play Wallace from To Hell and Back. Rodriguez now plans it as a sequel. Depp playing hard-boiled. Sounds like fun.