Phil on Film Index

Friday, June 03, 2005

Review - Sin City

Sin City, the long-awaited film version of Frank Miller’s cult comic, is “Shot and cut by Robert Rodriguez”. Miller himself shares a directing credit with Rodriguez, along with “Special guest director Quentin Tarantino”. From these credits alone you know that Sin City is a different type of comic-book adaptation; made by fans, for fans. Perhaps the fact that I have never read Miller’s work is why this film didn’t work for me, or perhaps it’s the fact that, beyond the spectacular visuals, Sin City fails at the most fundamental levels.

Certainly, the fans can’t quibble about how faithful Rodriguez has been to Miller’s dark vision, he has slavishly adapted these stories frame-by-frame. Shooting in black-and-white, Rodriguez has used digital cameras and green screen to fully create Basin City - a pulpy, noir-ish netherworld where it’s always night, and it’s mostly raining. Occasionally, something in the shot will come alive with colour, such as the breathtakingly beautiful opening sequence where a young girl in a red dress stands shivering on a balcony and stares out at the city below. Elsewhere, other items will be picked out in colour - a girl’s blonde hair, a pair of blue eyes - while one character is covered head-to-foot in yellow. Sin City isn’t just a live-action version of the comic, it is an exact replica of those pages on the big screen.

Unfortunately, while Sin City’s adherence to the source material is admirable, it is also the film’s biggest handicap. Among the opening titles you may notice that there is no screenplay credit. Rodriguez has taken Miller’s comic as gospel and simply re-created the stories as they are laid out on the page, making no attempt to adapt them for a different medium and delivering a poorly paced, clumsily constructed film which is often downright boring.

Tarantino may have guest-directed one sequence in Sin City, but his influence can be felt elsewhere, as the film apes the triptych structure of Pulp Fiction, but more awkwardly built and lacking the wit of its predecessor. We open with Hartigan (Bruce Willis), a good cop with a heart condition (comic-book shorthand for having a heart). He’s aiming to bust a paedophile (Nick Stahl) who has kidnapped an 11 year-old girl. We then dip into another of Miller’s stories, this one starring Mickey Rourke as Marv, a massive, hulking ex-con with a face carved from granite. He goes to bed with a prostitute named Goldie (Jamie King), but when he wakes up she’s dead and the cops are at his door. Marv heads out into the night to find her killer and avenge her death, helped by a naked policewoman (Carla Gugino), and coming face to face with a terrifying killer (Elijah Wood).

Marv’s story is probably the best of the three, despite feeling a little rushed, and features two of the film’s most memorable performances thanks to Rourke and Wood. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from here.

The next strand of the film stars Clive Owen as Dwight, a killer who teams up with a gang of gun-toting prostitutes to punish the villainous Jackie-Boy (Benicio Del Toro). This section of the film is, frankly, a mess. Some characters are forgotten about while others are introduced at inopportune moments, the messy plot goes nowhere fast and Owen’s performance is embarrassingly wooden - with his wavering American accent proving ill-suited to the hard-boiled dialogue. Finally, we have the resumption of Hartigan’s story, the most morally queasy of the three. Eight years after he saved Nancy from the paedophile, she is a pole dancer, the paedophile is completely yellow, and Hartigan has to save her all over again.

But by this point, I had grown tired of the endless mumbling voiceover, the two-dimensional characters, the misogyny and, given the fact that all three story strands follow a very similar narrative arc, the predictable nature of the film. Above all, I had tired of the violence. More specifically, I had tired of the way the violence was depicted. Sin City is a film full of violent acts; barely a scene goes by without a bone-crunching beating, a decapitation, a stabbing, a shooting or a castration - but it is a film utterly without pain. We don’t feel a single one of the many punishments dished out, instead Rodriguez wants us to find it amusing, or cool, when a man’s head is beaten to a pulp or a face is scraped across gravel. Surely one of these incidents should make the viewer wince a little? Just once?

Instead the violence becomes meaningless and repetitive, and the film drags itself towards the disappointing conclusion. Given the scrupulous care and attention to detail which Rodriguez has lavished on the film, it’s a real shame to have to point out its many flaws. The technical prowess and innovate techniques employed by Rodriguez gave him the perfect platform to deliver a gripping, twisted modern noir but, while he dazzles the eyes, the heart and mind remain untouched. You will leave the cinema with a head full of spectacular imagery but little else. Sin City’s sparkling visual style will deservedly receive high praise, but once you look beneath the surface it’s as flat as the paper Miller’s stories were originally printed on.