I became a fan of Frank Miller's work the day I opened the pages of "The Dark Knight Returns." Miller took the comic world by storm with his writing style. His characters narrated panels instead of using thought bubbles. They were old, tired adults, not perky superheroes. In Miller's hands, Batman became a weary war veteran desperately looking for a way to end his career without killing himself, Commissioner Gordon worried about his wife, and bad guys were Neo-Nazi naked monstrosities, all teeth and fangs. It was a turning point for comics, transforming them into entertainment for adults, and the medium has never looked back since. It was a turning point for my own writing as well; my stories from that point on took on a completely different feel, all inspired by Miller.
Sin City is what happens when Miller is free to do what he wants. He's a film noir fan at heart and Sin City is every bit an anachronistic blend of comic book action and pulpy dialogue. Fan of film noir will find all the iconic characters in Sin City: the weary integrity of a private eye, the pathos of a gangster past his prime, the desperation of a man wrongly accused of murder, the rage of a psychopath, and of course the femme fatale.
Film noir is also about narration. We hear the characters' thoughts and understand just how desperate and lonely they are. By knowing our protagonists' minds, we can appreciate their paranoia and hopelessness. And in film noir, the world is out to get everybody. There are no good guys; indeed, often the authority figures that would be considered "good" (police officers, priests) are evil and the people deemed least ethical (prostitutes, murderers) are the heroes. Ultimately, whatever innocence any of the characters has is lost. Sin City (short for Basin City, the very bottom of civilization) covers the entire spectrum.
Sin City is actually three mini-movies combined, all taking place at approximately the same time. The plots are from the graphic novels: The Hard Goodbye, That Yellow Bastard, and The Big Fat Kill, with the short story threads The Customer is Always Right and Babe Wore Red thrown in for good measure.
The first and last scenes of the movie perfectly capture the tone of film noir: a beautiful girl and a mysterious dark-haired man meet somewhere. We don't know the circumstances that brought them together but can feel the tension between them. They act like lovers even though they've only just met. But it can only end in blood.
In The Hard Goodbye thread, Marv (Mickey Rourke), a giant monster of a man sleeps with the woman of his dreams, Goldie (Jaime King). He awakens only to find her dead. Marv's not good for much, but he's good at killing, so he gets revenge the only way he knows how: by punching people until they squeal. Eventually, Marv discovers a serial killer who has a taste for ladies of the night. When the two finally meet, we learn that Marv can be just as depraved when he's out for revenge.
No, seriously, it's probably one of the grossest things I've seen in movies in awhile.
In The Big Fat Kill, Dwight (Clive Owen) is the new boyfriend of strip club waitress Shelley (Brittany Murphy). Unfortunately, Shelley has an old boyfriend named Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro), a bad guy who likes to beat up women. Dwight is determined to stop Jackie Boy from killing anyone else, only to trail him to Dwight's own ex-girlfriend Gail (Rosario Dawson) and her Old Towne Girls. The Old Towne Girls are prostitutes who run their own part of town. There are no pimps, no dirty cops, and no mob. Indeed, their part of town almost seems like some kind of nirvana for ladies of the night. And of course, they all dress in extremely kinky outfits when they're not brandishing katanas, wicked-looking knives, throwing stars shaped like swastikas, or Uzis. But Jackie Boy isn't who he seems and it's up to Dwight, Gail, and Miho (Devon Aoki) to keep a head (yes, I said HEAD) safe before a turf war explodes onto the streets.
In That Yellow Bastard, another serial rapist (Rourk Jr., played by Nick Stahl) and son of a senator (Powers Boothe) is the one remaining loose end that good cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis) can't put behind him. On his last day of retirement, Hartigan decides to go after the untouchable Rourk Jr. and save Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), only to end up in prison for eight years for a crime he didn't commit. We catch up with Hartigan later in the movie when he gets out of prison and discovers that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Except for Nancy, who in eight years grows up to be a major hottie, an attribute not unnoticed by poor, tortured Hartigan.
There are too many villains to list here, but they are all memorable even in their few moments of screen time. Three notable examples are the hilarious muttering of a lackey with an arrow sticking out of his chest, the elucidating thug who pronounces his every thought out loud Chandler Bing-style, and the hired mercenary who moved from bullets to explosives because, "you just can't go back to shooting people when you've seen a pub blow up and all the parts fly out."
By staying true to the original characters, the director (Robert Rodriguez) creates an entirely new film genre. It makes better use of digital effects first showcased in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and yet never forgets its comic roots. The action pedigree is most evident in Marv, an unstoppable juggernaut who smashes through doors, bounces off of speeding cars, and rips people apart with his bare hands…a few bandages and pills later and he's fine. Good guys and bad guys alike get shot so full of lead that they should be pencils, only to recover in the next scene. The men are all really nasty lugs and the women are all gorgeous and toned.
The movie is filmed in all black and white, with splashes of color for good measure. This achieves two amazing effects: it nails the feel of film noir and draws the viewer's eyes to important things about characters that might otherwise be missed. For example, Dwight wears red sneakers, symbolic of having at least one foot dipped in blood from his murderous past. The use of color, especially Yellow Bastard's…well, yellowishness, makes the character all the more disgusting. Color, when it appears, is as much a character as any actor on screen.
The actors are suitably restrained. If Sin City has a flaw, it's that it's too true to its roots at times, which might alienate modern audiences. Some of the characters have eye-rolling dialogue, but then, that's part of the mood of Sin City. It's not meant to be realistic or even hip. Sin City is true to itself, and it's up to the audience if they want to go along for the ride.
This is the same kind of uncompromising vision that Peter Jackson brought to the screen with Lord of the Rings. By deeply respecting the original creator's work, he shattered the preconceived notions of what a movie should be and conjures something we've never seen before. I was skeptical about a comic book, even Miller's books, being turned into a new format, but Rodriguez did it and he did it with style.
Sin City is dark, violent, and even sadistic at times. But most importantly, it has Frodo (Elijah Wood) as a hopping cannibal. After seeing this film, I will never think of him as a cuddly little hobbit again.