Sin City (18)
Directed by Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller and Quentin Tarantino
Written by Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen,
Powers Boothe, Rutger Hauer, Elijah Wood,
Rosario Dawson, Benicio Del Toro, Jaime King,
Devon Aoki, Brittany Murphy, Michael Madsen, et al.
Produced by Robert Rodriguez, Elizabeth Avellan and Frank Miller
Runtime: 126 min
This review first appeared on Emerald City
Sin City is a Quentin Tarantino film for people with Attention Deficit Disorder. You can see why he wanted to direct one of the scenes, as Sin City is a distillation of many of the elements of his films. If you thought Kill Bill 1 and 2 contained far too much girlie 'talking about feelings' and not enough mayhem (not, perhaps, a completely unreasonable charge), then this is your film. Even if you didn't think that then this breathtaking film is still a treat.

In the beginning comics writer Frank Miller produced a number of ultra-violent noir comics based around the gritty and unpleasant Basin City. With the name shortened to Sin City because…well, because it's such a grim place, these stories followed insane criminals, crazed politicians, uncontrolled cops and beautiful, doomed prostitutes down a swirling drain of corruption, misery and death. Miller, having had his fingers burnt by the movie business already over Robocop 2, was understandably wary about letting anyone make a Sin City movie, until maverick auteur Robert Rodriguez showed him a demonstration of how he would make it, using CGI and green screen technology to produce a near frame-by-frame copy of Miller's books. Miller was hooked and Rodriguez has actually credited him as a co-director (along with 'guest director' Quentin Tarantino) simply because so many of the scenes in Sin City follow the look of the comics so precisely.

The film is split into roughly three and a half sections, following four of the graphic novels; The Customer Is Always Right is the first, a very short pre-credits prologue. The film then begins with events from That Yellow Bastard, where we catch up with Hartigan (Bruce Willis), that most doomed of all movie cop figures, the good cop about to retire. Following up one last case, that of a kidnapped 11-year-old girl at the mercy of the demented and sadistic son of a US Senator, Hartigan steps into a whole world of pain when he manages to stop the kidnapper but is then betrayed...

The film then segues into events from The Hard Goodbye. Marv (Mickey Rourke, under some heavy latex make-up) is a preposterously grizzled sociopathic ex-con who spends a night of passion with a beautiful dame - ahem, sorry - woman, Goldie. Marv is so profoundly affected by this that when he wakes to find her still next to him, but dead, and with the cops on their way he feels morally bound to track down whoever killed her and framed him, and does so in his own uniquely physical style.

Whereupon we shift viewpoints once again to follow icy wanted-murderer Dwight (Clive Owen) in The Big Fat Kill. Dwight is in the apartment of a girl, Shellie, who's trying to get rid of her drunk and unpleasant former boyfriend, Jackie Boy, who's at the door with his cronies. After humiliating Jackie and forcing him to leave, Dwight follows him into Old Town. Once there Jackie begins to harass a young prostitute; but no-one - no-one - messes with any member of the fiercely protective sisterhood of Old Town… Cue violence, death, bodies and Quentin Tarantino's relatively restrained directorial bout. Oh, and the IRA, too. Honest.

We then return to wrap up events from That Yellow Bastard and The Hard Goodbye, and finish with a short vignette starring the character from The Customer Is Always Right.

Stylistically, as every reviewer has said, Sin City is quite a remarkable piece of work, displaying its' comic book roots at every turn with a very stark, surreal look, almost entirely drained of colour and with the CGI backgrounds giving things just the right sense of unreality. It's always night, it's usually raining or snowing, and colours appear only to illustrate a particular point - such as Goldie's beauty or the lines of a fast car. Otherwise the pallet is dominated by black and white, just like the film's morality. The only time this doesn't quite work is when large amounts of blood are spilled: the blood is painted pure white, and tends to looks more like an unfortunate spillage of two litres of white emulsion than someone's life ebbing away.

Sin City's plotting, such as it is, is very old-fashioned - I'm almost tempted to call it mythical - in that there's precious little characterisation: Marv and Hartigan, certainly, are almost archetypal in their drives and stubborn-ness. They exist only to illustrate a quality or a group of qualities, rather than to become rounded human beings; their stories are deliberately uncomplicated, serving only to make a fairly narrow point. This timeless, myth-like quality is further enhanced by the mixture of period styles seen in the cars, the guns and the clothing; even the morality feels adrift in time: characters talk about 'not hitting dames' and some seem to have a sort of old-fashioned code of honour, and yet the level and form of violence on display here is anything but old-fashioned. It's not quite as viscerally disturbing as it could have been; there are many gross-out moments and a high body-count, but nothing quite like, say, Seven, or Audition. What makes Sin City different from these movies is the frequent cartoonish nature of the violence. Whilst the gore may seem all too real, many of the characters are essentially superheroic in ability, although they're presented as 'normal'. It's the kind of 'hyperviolence' seen in, for example, Roadrunner or Bugs Bunny cartoons, where characters are ridiculously strong and tough. For example Marv, who bounces around like a rag doll, seemingly never feels pain, but appears with a veritable constellation of spotless sticking plasters as testament to his flesh and blood nature. I was also reminded, oddly, of John Waters films, in that many of his films have the same loopy surreal sensibility as Sin City (although without the hacked-off limbs and the gore).

We have to mention the N-word eventually, I suppose - noir - because if Sin City is to be labelled as a genre it might best be 'cartoon-noir' (noirtoon, anybody?). If Raymond Chandler was alive and writing today then he might well be doing something similar to Sin City, although I suspect he'd make a slightly better job of the dialogue. Not that it's ever bad, but it never quite rises to the heights I suspect Miller imagines it to. And it isn't helped by Clive Owen's acting either. Willis and Rourke, and just about everybody else, turn in perfectly acceptable performances, but Clive... well, perhaps it's his Englishness, but despite turning in a better visual performance than anybody else in the movie, he's badly let down by his voice, failing dismally in his bid to sound like a hard-boiled American killer.

Sin City is an assured tour de force: we don't learn anything, there is no grand denouement, and almost none of the characters come out of the film better off - if they're lucky then a certain kind of sacrificial justice may be achieved. All the bad guys just are Evil, with no redeeming qualities or rationale. But that's not the point - you're not invited to think, but rather to feel, to react, to events onscreen. Sin City works as a piece of entertainment on a deeper level than that. Unlike most Hollywood action movies, where a threat to the status quo is met and overcome, in Sin City the main characters generally are the threat to the status quo, a status quo that is itself thoroughly rotten. So there is no good guy-bad guy dichotomy, you have to simply choose the least-bad guy. And, hell, even Dirty Harry looks like a pussy compared to the least-bad guys in Sin City.

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