It seems everyone’s forgotten about Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990). I’m not surprised, mind you. I found the film excruciatingly boring. It was a visual feast, certainly, but it was also static and cold. Beatty’s vision captured the aesthetics of comic books but not their manic charm. Fifteen years later comes Sin City, a movie with similar ambitions, though this one’s unforgettable. It’s directed by Robert Rodriguez with creator Frank Miller. If you know anything about Rodriguez, you know manic charm is what he’s all about.
Sin City is based on four tales from Miller’s cult comic book series: The Customer Is Always Right, The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill, and That Yellow Bastard. To say the movie adapts these stories would be inaccurate. If anything, the filmmakers have adapted cinema to Miller’s work and to the comic book experience as a whole.
Every element of the film flawlessly replicates the feel and dynamic appeal of pulp comics, from the creative use of colour in an otherwise black and white universe to the cartoonishly hardboiled dialogue: “This is the bad days, the all-or-nothing days!” The narrative itself pays homage to the medium, using voiceover to evoke its rectangular captions (or thought bubbles, depending on how long it’s been since you picked up a comic book).
There’s always the danger of redundancy when using narration in such a relentless way, but the film employs it as a counterpoint. Sin City is populated with violent sociopaths, but, naturally, that’s not how the characters see themselves. There’s tenderness in their thoughts, a gentle humanity that isn’t readily apparent from their cruel actions. Early in the movie, a character jumps out of a speeding vehicle. He doesn’t think of the impending car wreck. His voiceover focuses on the woman he mourns, adding a layer of depth and romance to the intense violence.
It should be noted that the film is extremely gory. It treats nudity with the same cheerful abandon. This is not to say these elements are gratuitous or exploitive. Like everything else in the movie, they’re beautifully stylized and serve to cement the gritty madness of an already surreal universe. Still, some may cringe at the explicit visuals, though people watching an R-rated film called Sin City really shouldn’t expect a Care Bear reunion.
Like any good film noir tale, each plotline in the movie functions both as a love story and a crime drama. With the exception of the teaser featuring Josh Hartnett, which is based on a three-page short subject, each thread is also charged with enough twists and ironic reversals to make a full-length feature in its own right.
In the most violent and, oddly, touching tale, Mickey Rourke gives a career-reviving performance as Marv: an unstable brute seeking to avenge the death of a woman (Jaime King) he barely knows. Hidden under heavy prosthetics that transform him into an exact replica of the comic book character, Rourke adopts the body language of a gorilla, evoking a man born in the wrong species and adding new dimensions to the climactic battle against a panther-like killer (Elijah Wood).
The next chapter focuses on Dwight (Clive Owen), whose pursuit of Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) escalates into a race to safeguard the uneasy truce between the police and a group of self-governed prostitutes. Humorous, preposterous, and action-packed, the story is probably the film’s least compelling, but it provides a welcome break from a melodramatic weariness that would otherwise become monotonous. In short, it’s a lot of fun.
Finally, Bruce Willis stars in a heart-breaking story about an aging cop trying to protect a stripper (Jessica Alba) from a well-connected pedophile (Nick Stahl), leading to a bloody confrontation with the “yellow bastard”, whom the movie appropriately colours. Though the plot has all the trappings of a “righteous vigilante” story, the film focuses on the impossible romance between Willis and Alba’s damaged characters and on its march toward a tragic and inevitable conclusion.
All the stories take place in Basin City, a corrupt metropolis where street thugs have more decency than senators and clergymen. Though the characters sometimes cross paths, their adventures remain mostly self-contained. Plot is not how the film connects these lives. As the title suggests, Sin City is not about a specific group of people but about the world they inhabit: a gritty pulp nightmare with an exuberant beauty never before seen on the silver screen.
I wrote at the beginning of the review that Sin City is unforgettable. I meant that from a personal perspective. I don’t know if people will remember the movie fifteen years from now. I can only tell you that they should.