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SIN CITY (director/writer: Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller; screenwriter: based on Frank Miller’s series of “Sin City” graphic novels; cinematographer: Robert Rodriguez; editor: Robert Rodriguez; music: Robert Rodriguez/John Debney/ Graeme Revell; cast: Bruce Willis (John Hartigan), Mickey Rourke (Marv), Clive Owen (Dwight), Jessica Alba (Nancy Callahan), Rosario Dawson (Gail), Jaime King (Goldie/Wendy), Brittany Murphy (Shellie), Benicio Del Toro (Jack “Boy” Rafferty), Nick Stahl (Junior/Yellow Bastard), Elijah Wood (Kevin), Michael Clarke Duncan (Manute), Devon Aoki (Miho), Alexis Bledel (Becky), Powers Boothe (Senator Roark), Carla Gugino (Lucille), Josh Hartnett (The Man), Rutger Hauer (Cardinal Roark), Michael Madsen (Bob), Makenzie Vega (Nancy Callahan at 11); Runtime: 126; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Elizabeth Avellan/Frank Miller/Robert Rodriguez; Dimension Films; 2005)
“Capturing the full comic book flavor alone doesn’t make it a good movie.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A senseless, revolting, and boring tip of the hat to comic book characters, gratuitous violence, machismo, and Mickey Spillane-like pulp. If ever there was an empty exercise in style, this is it. It’s an unconventional shapeless experimental film slickly shot in the form of a film noir; it’s based on Frank Miller’s Eisner Award-winning series of “Sin City” graphic black-and-white novels (in other words, comic books). Robert Rodriguez codirects with the comic book creator, and with the uncredited help of Pulp Fiction’s Quentin Tarantino as special guest director. He directed one illusory car ride in the rain scene between Clive Owen and Benicio Del Toro, where the latter has a pistol stuck in his skull. In order to get Miller listed as codirector, Rodriguez had to quit the Director’s Guild of America. The duo make the comic book come to life on film and remain faithful to its source (something Rodriguez was adamant about), as it interweaves multiple storylines from the long-running series that tell about a 1940s type of corrupt city somewhere in nowhere land. It moves from live-action to computer-generated images, spinning out of control for its over two hour length at a dizzying pace to capture all its bloodsport, ongoing cartoonish sadism, crass humor, and as many references as it can to other film noirs and B-films. It’s gloriously filmed in luminous dark and white shades with intermittent splashes of rich colors giving it a pleasing visual effect, and emits not only the true comic book shadings but its shallowness in narrative. The shame of this wasted technical accomplishment is that it meant well and is done with love for its comic book subjects.

Basin City is a dark place of predators where crime is the norm and reality is only a fantasy world consisting of assorted creeps, corrupt cops and politicians, perverts, prostitutes, assassins, and all sorts of violent thrill seekers. It opens with Josh Hartnett as both narrator and player sneaking up on a woman on a roof dressed in a lush red gown and offering her a smoke before he snuffs out her life off camera. That’s our introduction to all the brutality and mindless acts to subsequently follow, but which are not done again in such a discrete manner; all the vivid asskicking is done in the name of artistic integrity. From here on it strings together three main stories that overlap.

Aging detective Hartigan (Bruce Willis) has a bad ticker but that doesn’t prevent him from stopping a sadistic pedophile rapist (Nick Stahl) from carrying out his intentions on 11-year-old Nancy Callahan (Makenzie Vega). After the detective shoots the rapist in the nuts the perp turns into a foul-smelling, yellow-skinned eunuch, who happens to be the spoiled son and only heir to the powerful but crooked Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). The senator has vowed revenge against the only honest cop left in town and has him jailed for eight years on a phony rape charge against Nancy. Things get spicy when the detective gets out and meets the only friend he has in the world, the now slut-like sexy Nancy (Jessica Alba) at 19. She has a crush on him and is twirling a lasso while gyrating in her exotic dancing act at a bar for losers.

The most coherent story has ex-con Marv (Mickey Rourke) as a street warrior brute with Superman-like strength, a pumped-up body, a Frankenstein jaw and a prosthetic disfigured face, act out the film’s underlying theme of the misunderstood toughie with the heart of gold. Marv wakes up in bed to discover the only woman who tenderly loved him is murdered, and the cops are coming to arrest him. But he overpowers them with his superhuman strength and escapes. The dead love of his life is a blonde hooker named Goldie (Jaime King), whom he places on a pedestal. To avenge her death, Marv becomes a Lancelot figure going after the stealth killer Kevin (Elijah Wood). Marv tracks him down to an isolated farm, and discovers he mounts his women victims’ heads on a wall in his hunter-like trophy room after both he and his dog feast on the dead body. The only friend loner Marv has is his lesbian parole officer Lucille (Carla Gugino), who when she’s not feeding him pills and walking around in the nude has been taken prisoner by Kevin and has become subject to his cannibal urges.

In “Old Town,” a part of the city ruled by prostitutes who have a deal with the crooked police and the mob to let things alone in the Sin City part of town, Gail (Rosario Dawson) is the S&M leather queen and leader of the hookers sisterhood who include the silent Asian ninja killing machine Miho (Devon Aoki) and the greedy hooker stoolie Becky (Alexis Bledel). Things go bust when sleazy corrupt cop Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) messes with streetwise smart-alecky waitress Shellie (Brittany Murphy) and her ex-photographer boyfriend Dwight (Clive Owen), a former killer disguised by plastic surgery, is there to come to her rescue by teaching the dirty cop a lesson as he shoves his head into the toilet bowl where Jackie Boy just urinated. When Jackie Boy flees to Sin City, his ugly death leads to a broken truce and a gangwar breaks out between the prostitutes and the crooked police, with good-guy Dwight helping out his former kinky girlfriend Gail free herself from the clutches of mobster enforcer Manute (Michael Clarke Duncan).

This polarizing film will certainly have its adherents who welcome its new look experimental style and applaud the filmmaker for filming it in the excessive way he wanted (something rarely done in Hollywood). But that’s not enough as far as I’m concerned to make Sin City anything more than a unique exploitation film with artistic pretensions. The film’s emptiness and lack of anything to say but pow and wham, left me unimpressed with such a gratuitous orgy of violence, vapid dialogue, and undeveloped stories and characters. It shoots itself in the foot by the cumulative effect of its ultraviolence. Even if you might have thought of this as a gourmet film meal, to ingest it all should only make you queasy. There’s nothing in this tale that even remotely reflects the human condition. It’s simply a comic book story, one geared to an adolescent’s fantasy about loser superheroes coming to the rescue of sluts in distress. Capturing the full comic book flavor alone doesn’t make it a good movie.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”