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Sinful

Number four of four… This here is the fourth film in a row to be reviewed by yours truly that’s the result of an adaptation from a literary source.
From the mind of Frank Miller, Sin City is suffering from ‘lack of awareness’ as most of the promotional hype has died down as a result of its delayed release here. So its performance in the box office may suffer a little as a result.

The question is, does it live up to the high praise that it received when it was released in US cinemas? Or is this the stinker that we’re all expecting to arrive any day now?

As I manage to drag myself out of the depressing Melbourne rain I can’t help but ask myself if this dump will have what I’m looking for? Am I too late? Did the chaos out there on the grey city streets cause me to miss the action? Or am I just in time?
Brushing away the remnants of winter from my shoulders I make my way into the cinema. The place is empty save for a pert oriental dame behind the counter talking down a telephone and some two bit sleaze making eyes at the Angelina Jolie half of a ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’ poster. A velvet rope maze marks the path for the usual movie going cattle, but that’s not for me. I walk right up and lock eyes with the hot little piece behind the counter. Big mistake, she knows she’s got me now. She continues to talk on the phone and I see an evil smile crawl into the corners of her green eyes: She’s toying with me, like a cat with a mouse, she makes me wait while she twirls the phone cord between her fingers….

Robert Rodriguez is a talented guy. While I don’t particularly think he’s the greatest director around at the moment, he certainly has made his mark on some really interesting films: The Mexico trilogy (El Mariachi, Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico) are extremely underrated pieces of story telling. What is worth noting about Rodriguez too is that he not only Directs his films, but more often than not he scores, edits, takes a Cinematographer credit and puts his money where his mouth is by producing too. That said, I’m not exactly sure who to thank for Sin City. Clearly, even just flicking through the pages of a Frank Miller graphic novel will show just how close what you see on the screen is to what you find in those pages. In some ways Sin City feels a little more like a translation or evolution than an adaptation, but whatever the case, the combination of Miller, Rodriguez and guest director Quentin Tarantino has resulted in one of the most interesting and entertaining movies that I’ve seen in a while.

Sin City is billed as being three stories, but they are far from separate. Some of the events take place in parallel, some characters cross from one ‘chapter’ to the next, while others serve to effect characters or events in chapters which, at first, don’t seem to bare any relationship with them. At the core of the three chapters are three protectors. Three men who take it upon themselves to protect, or exact revenge on behalf of, those they see as needing their services. However, the three characters are far removed from each other: Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is a cop on the verge of retirement and hot on the heals of a child molester/murderer, Marv (Mickey Rourke) is a street bruiser who sets out to exact revenge against the killer of a hooker and Dwite (Clive Owen) is a wanted murder with a new face who goes after the violent ex-boyfriend of his new squeeze. Each story shares the back drop of Basin CIty, a horribly violent and bloody place that makes it’s own laws and is crawling with vile predators desperate to break them. Mark my words, this film is violent! So much so that, were it not for the stylized nature of its appearance I doubt that this film would ever have been released.

Visually Sin City is unique… for a film. It uses inky black and solid white contrasts to invoke the imagery present in Miller’s graphic novels. Where this serves to mask the violence, is that instead of constant sprays of red blood spattering everywhere the viewer is desensitized by the use of stark monochrome contrasts or by the use of silhouettes and cutouts. In many cases the screen really does take on the appearance of a printed page come to life. This was one aspect of the film that I was quite apprehensive about: Having found it difficult to sit through ‘Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow’ once the initial appeal of the films style had warn off, I was concerned that the same thing would happen with Sin City.
Fortunately that was not to be the case. Sin City’s story is gripping and it’s performances from all involved are in perfect harmony with the unique experience that is the rest of the movie. Interestingly it’s the much maligned Mickey Rourke who’s performance stands out amongst the stellar cast and great performances (with the exception of Brittany Murphy who comes across as a little bit ‘high school eisteddfod’ ).

It’s extremely tempting to use the term ‘film noir’ when talking about Sin City. Noir is a style of films popularized in the 1940’s that can be characterized by their moody, gloomy lighting, focus on stories that delve into the dark, inhumane side of human nature and their use of first person voice over narration to guide the viewer through the usually complex and convoluted plots. While all those elements do describe Sin City, I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to simply say that Miller and Rodriguez have set out to deliver a modern noir film. They HAVE delivered a modern noir film, but I believe that its as a result of staying true to the source material. Graphic novels are printed, often in black and white. The plot of the Sin City novels (and indeed many other titles) are complex, involved and contain many forays into the dark side of humanity. And, most notably, Graphic Novels tend to be extremely introspective. We are privy to the inner thoughts of the characters and the only way, other than having thought balloons appearing over the heads of people on the screen, is to use narration: On which Sin City relies heavily.

All up, Sin CIty, if you have the stomach for it, is an extremely original film. It’s characters are far more 3 dimensional than their origins may lead you to believe. It has an immense cast which, while handled with far greater elegance than movies with similarly numbered performers on screen (eg: Be Cool), leads to the only faltering block of the film: At points the viewer is simply asked to accept that there are relationships and backgrounds that are pre-establish. We’re given information in passing that is not explained and we’re asked to just go along for the ride. For those looking for everything to be wrapped in a nice bow this may be a little distracting. However if you accept that the vantage point that we are given into Basin City only affords us a snapshot of events of about 48 hours and that, as such, we’re not going to know how everyone knows everyone else, then you can easily go along for that ride.

Am I late? Has the action started or are they still showing the ‘Coming Soon’ previews. Damn it! I bet I’ve missed the ‘King Kong’ one!
Finally she hangs up the phone with a click, looks me over and then uses her mouth to ask me what I’d like. I make it clear that I’m there for one thing and one thing only. She takes the cash and I walk away, but not before our eyes lock once again.. Sorry lady, the deal is done: One movie geek gets a ticket to Sin City, one little asian hottie gets my $14.50 – Sounds like a fair deal to me.

[Originally written for EON and published at Gamespace on Fri, 15 Jul 2005]

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