Sin City

Pretty and pretty brutal tale that's too busy for it's own good.

Released in 2005, certified UK-18. Reviewed on 10 Jun 2005 by Scott Morris
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Contrary to commonly held beliefs, it's really Basin City (Sin City to it's mates) that's the biggest hive of scum and villainy in the universe. In what our running totalometer proclaims to be the forty-five billionth comic book adaptation of the past three years, doyenne of the shooty shooty bang bang cinema Robert Rodrigez brings Frank Miller's graphic novels of graphic violence to the local multiplexes with mixed results.

We're told there's a million stories in Sin City, which might explain why so much is crammed into this one. Starring, well, pretty much everybody, Rodrigez takes Miller's stark lines and spot colour, transplanting them wholesale to the extent he felt compelled to dish out a directorial credit to Miller. In terms of distinctiveness and character it's (barring acts of God or Beat Takeshi) certainly the most distinctive thing you'll see in a cinema this year, making even the non stop day-glo CG fest of Revenge of the Sith seem somewhat pedestrian. It's arresting, stunning and monochromatically vibrant in a way that I could probably witter on at some length for, but in the interests of upholding adages about pictures and words I'll point you in either the direction of the screenshots or the trailers. No point stating the bleeding obvious now, is there?

So, looking past this startling artifice what else is noteworthy about this film? It consists of a series of short-esque segments which don't collide in the Pulp Fiction sense that gets bandied about for some reason, rather tangentially brushing past tipping a wink to t'other. Hartigan, a hard boiled cop who as tradition demands is mere days away from retirement sets out to stop serial kiddy-fiddling murdermonger Roark Jr. (Nick Stahl), hindered only by the Roark family's dominance of Basin City politics and corrupt forces on the police force. Corruption is endemic is Sin City. Dwight (Clive Owen) may well be a murderer, but he's doing his best to stop the enclave of impossibly beautiful hookers headed up by Gail (Rosario Dawson) of the old town becoming embroiled in a three way gang war with the cops and the mafia. Having been framed for the murder of Goldie (Jaime King), one of the aforementioned impossibly beautiful hookers human wrecking machine Marv (Mickey Rourke under a considerable weight of makeup) bashes, crashes and kills his way up the food chain of criminal enterprise to find out who's attempting to play him like a flute, running into the bizarre silent assassin Kevin (Frodo Baggins).

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All well and good, but cynics may note a worrying disproportionality between the length of the cast list and the two hour run time. Rodrigez hasn't exactly been known for minimalist filmmaking of late and it's difficult to escape the feeling that he's tried to cram too much into this outing. Given that there seems to be another two in the works already hopefully he'll be able to focus on building up a little empathy for his stylish but largely unexplained characters. While I'll gleefully admit a complete ignorance of Miller's original source material, I'm sure the intention wasn't really to have their protagonists rail against a vast number of random, faceless characters who you'd probably be pushed to remember existed were they embodied by less established actors.

In terms of violence it's pretty much genre defining. Remember the Western release of Kill Bill: Vol 1 where the climatic slicing and dicing of the Crazy 88 was deemed too brutal for an eighteen rating, forcing a seemingly inexplicable destaturation to black and white? While I'm not entirely convinced the palette change evokes the desensitisation the BBFC were looking for, we can rest assured that a full colour Sin City would have been laughed back to the editing room. Even in (largely) monochrome Sin City manages to be about the most violent film seen in ages for all but the most imagination-deprived. A great many guns are fired, punches thrown, heads removed- It's unlikely to find favour amongst the faint hearted but it's certainly all done with such an excess of style that it's difficult to be unimpressed with it all. Certainly the punching of Benicio Del Torro's card is worth the price of admission alone.

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Miller's dialogue is as stark as his artwork, treading a thin line between Raymond Chandler and Max Payne that's just the right side of ridiculous to fit in with the surround visuals and action without seeming anything like as laughable written out. "My warrior woman. My Valkyrie. You'll always be mine, always and never. Never. The Fire, baby. It'll burn us both. It'll kill us both. there's no place in this world for our kind of fire." Yeah. Take a seat, Clive. Niggles aside, it works well enough to let it slide, and it'll certainly keep the traditionalist defenders of comic book translation happy.

Despite an overwhelming force of numbers, the cast tend to get drowned out by the visuals and action. Hartigan's story arc is to an extent the most traditional and least cluttered, with a minimum of interjections from anyone barring the immediate protagonists. With a suitably gruff showing from Brucy and an...interesting villain in the unrecognisable shape of Nick 'neuvo John Conner' Stahl, it's fair to say it's head and shoulders above the rest of the film. As highly regarded as Clive Owen is round these parts, and even letting the occasionally strained pseudo-Yank accent slide, his story gets dragged down into a quagmire of indistinct characterisation with too many people sharing the limelight to really care about any of them.

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Mickey Rourke gets a theoretically simpler, more straightforward tale of revenge, more or less reducing to Marv killing his way up the food chain to find who's responsible for framing him. That he's getting numerous notices along the lines of 'career best performance' is really more indicative of the quality of the rest of his career than the quality of his performance in Sin City, but that's not to say he doesn't give a suitably imposing presence. Violence and prosthetics however do not necessarily result in an engaging storyline.

And so on, and so forth. While I'm seemingly on my own in liking Once Upon A Time In Mexico, it's becoming increasingly difficult to defend the style over substance path Rodriguez is choosing of late. I'm not going to care about characters simply because they're there, no matter how many heads they're staving in. Knowing so little about the bulk of the characters inhabiting Sin City makes it difficult to really care about the outcomes of their struggles, and that's the only issue with this film that we can't let slide. Frankly, given how harshly beautiful and generally enjoyable Sin City manages to be in spite of it's issues the mark I'm about to bestow on it seems a trifle harsh, but I've always considered these numbers fairly arbitrary anyway so I won't get too upset about it.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.

Robert Rodriguez
Frank Miller
Cast list:
Bruce Willis (Hartigan)
Mickey Rourke (Marv)
Jessica Alba (Nancy Callahan)
Clive Owen (Dwight)
Nick Stahl (Roark Jr./Yellow Bastard)
Powers Boothe (Senator Roark)
Rutger Hauer (Cardinal Roark)
Elijah Wood (Kevin)
Rosario Dawson (Gail)
Benicio Del Toro (Jackie Boy)
Jaime King (Goldie/Wendy)
Devon Aoki (Miho)
Brittany Murphy (Shellie)
Michael Clarke Duncan (Manute)
Carla Gugino (Lucille)
Alexis Bledel (Becky)
Josh Hartnett (The Man)
Marley Shelton (The Customer)
Michael Madsen (Bob)
Rick Gomez (Klump)
Jason McDonald (Ronnie)
Clark Middleton (Schutz)
Frank Miller (Priest)