(2005, dir. by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez)
Contributed by David Dedrick
Another two-movie year for Robert Rodriguez: this year brought us The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl In 3-D and Sin City and in 2003 we saw Spy Kids 3: Game Over and Once Upon A Time In Mexico. I sometimes fear that he’s just pumping them out, but I have to admire his work ethic. Once Upon A Time In Mexico - a continuation of the Mariachi series - was an underrated gem, but Spy Kids 3 lacked the panache of its predecessors - especially the second - and seemed perfunctory. Once Upon A Time In Mexico’s problem was its title; implying as it did a connection to Sergio Leone’s violent, but stately sagas - Rodriguez is too ebullient and in too much of an all-fired headlong rush to have the epical gravitas and scope of Leone. It’s still lots of fun though. Anyway, Leone already made Once Upon A Time In Mexico; it’s called A Fistful of Dynamite (or, Duck, You Sucker!). (Q: Which one of these two titles is better? A: Neither.)
I haven’t seen Shark Boy and Lava Girl yet; I’m a bit put off by the perceived indulgence of making a film based on one’s own child’s screenplay. (It was such a success for Francis Ford Coppola in New York Stories, after all.) So I reserve judgment. Sin City, however, is one of my top picks for movie of the year.
First, let me say a few words about Sin City, the comic upon which the movie is based. It’s written and drawn by Frank Miller, who has consistently revolutionized comics content throughout his career: his run on Daredevil, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Ronin, to name but a few. He always challenges his audience, but he also challenges himself; he constantly alters his drawing style from project to project - still keeping one foot in his Kirby-esque roots. For Sin City, Miller chose an austere style of high-contrast black and white; as though every person and object in this world existed in the glare of some high-intensity spotlight. Occasionally Miller might introduce a single colour in a story to emphasize an important feature - a beautiful woman’s blue eyes, for instance - but black and white remains predominant. The stories are as stark as the art; they’re pulp fiction, more in the brutal manner of Mickey Spillane than the wry acerbity of Hammett or elegance of Chandler. The characters are the stock character of noir: the femme fatale, the femme who is a fatality, the burnt-out cop, the noble gumshoe, the hooker with a heart of gold, the two-bit hood, the corrupt authorities at al.
Although Miller was wary of a typical Hollywood desecration of his work, Rodriguez has done a masterful job adapting the work for the screen - obviously in close collaboration with Miller who gets credit as co-director and his name above the title. Converted by George Lucas to digital movie making, Rodriguez is now its biggest proselytizer; and Sin City is the first film to show the artistic rather than the technological possibilities - without the innovations of digital its unlikely that Rodriguez could have rendered this film as faithfully as he does. The actors were filmed against a green screen, giving Rodriguez unlimited control of the look of this film: the backgrounds and special effects are added later using CGI; he can tweak the lighting effects, add spots of colour, change the gradations of black and white, heighten the emotional intensity or the essential unreality of the movie’s events: the thick, slashing rain that falls like white pencils from the sky or the bright, white blood that seems less like blood than a void on the screen are examples of the heightened unreality that recall its comic book roots. It also looks like one of those German Expressionist films from the silent era.
And let’s talk about the acting in this film because its so good. Carla Gugino is great as a hardened parole officer; Rosario Dawson impresses as a tough cookie of a prostitute; Brittany Murphy, with her dark eyes and sad face, was born to play the ill-used barmaid; Elijah Wood gives a creepy performance as he attempts to break The Curse of Frodo©; Josh Hartnett pops by to play a self-deluding hitman with an unconvincing moustache; Jessica Alba lights up the screen - literally, with the help of a CGI-generated halo - as a stripper with a past; and an almost unrecognizable Benecio Del Toro has a small role as a... no, I can’t say anything without spoiling the fun. Rodriguez is also clever enough to cast the charismatic actors, Rutger Hauer and Powers Boothe, in two relatively small roles that with little screen time must be powerful and memorable; it’s their corruption and depravity that are the motor that drives events in Sin City.
The film is made up of some short stories surrounding three longer ones. The first with Bruce Willis as a decent cop in a dirty world, hunting a monstrous child-killer with connections in high places is great; both touchingly sentimental and highly cathartic with someone getting a much deserved shit-kicking. Willis gives an excellent performance and no one plays noble suffering more nobly than he. Clive Owen plays a man with a murderous past who must help the hookers of Old Town dispose of a big, big problem. Owen is the right mix of seediness, desperation and steely resourcefulness that, although you can see the end coming about a mile down the road, you’re happy when he gets there. Basically, it’s all an excuse for gunplay, Ninja-style hi-jinks and blowing things up “real good”. And Rosario Dawson in thigh-high leather boots. (Am I complaining? Am I complaining?) The bravura performance, though, goes to Mickey Rourke as Marv, the nearly human killing machine with reality/fantasy issues. Rourke, barely recognizable in his Marv make-up, brings such humanity and zest to his role that you can’t help but smile as he goes about his killing job. And kill he does. Marv pummels, clobbers, gouges, shoots, strangles, stabs and worse as he avenges the murder of a kind prostitute all the way to the top. Rourke is note perfect - right to the shocking end.
I can heartily recommend this film to everyone who loves movies, who aren’t too squeamish and enjoy their violence and action with a wry chaser. Or you can show it to people who are squeamish as some kind of a joke. Whatever. It’s out on DVD now, but be warned: a two-disc extended special edition is coming out later this year. Sin City 2 is in pre-production for 2006. Hooray!