3½ stars (out of 4)
Film noir never dies. It just keeps coming back, drenched in black, guns blazing.
At least that's the case with "Sin City," an amazingly successful attempt by Robert Rodriguez to translate Frank Miller's hard-boiled, brutally violent crime comic to the big screen.
The movie, shot in a monochrome by turns gorgeously lurid and horrifically bleak and set in a prototypical city of night, is acted by an all-star, mugs-and-sluts gallery that includes Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, Rosario Dawson, Brittany Murphy, Benicio Del Toro and, in a career-reviving turn, Mickey Rourke. And it's guided by a crack directorial team that includes Rodriguez, "special guest director" Quentin Tarantino and Miller himself. From the first double-cross to the last screaming second of mayhem and slaughter, it will delight some and repel othersand that's probably the right reaction.
I enjoyed it myself, which may mean I'm just starved for old-fashioned noir, something in black and white with Chandleresque guys in snap-brim hats. And "Sin City" is a movie of such high style, done in such a spirit of electrifying fun and creativity, that it kisses the blood right off its own violent hands.
Miller's post-"Kiss Me Deadly" world of hard guys, rich degenerates, hookers, hired killers and crooked cops looks even better as a movie, shot in gleaming black and white with bursts of blood red and gold. Here, Rodriguez and Miller adapt three of the original stories, weaving them together like the three sections of Tarantino's bent magnum opus "Pulp Fiction."
After a brief prelude with Josh Hartnett as a seductive hit man, we start with "Yellow Bastard," which stars Willis as lonely, honest cop Hartigan battling killer-rapist Roark Jr. (Nick Stahl) and his evil, rich family. Then we move into "The Hard Goodbye," with Rourke as wild, wolfish Marv wreaking vengeance for a prostitute's murder. We pick up again with "The Big Fat Kill," in which righteous hard-guy Dwight (Owen) and crooked cop Jackie Boy (Del Toro) are mired in a lovers' tiff over tough babe Shellie (Murphy) that escalates into a gang war. Finally we segue back into "Bastard," for a "Pulp"-style wrapup.
Rodriguez and Miller try something else reminiscent of "Pulp Fiction" as they keep moving characters from one story to the other. Tarantino's influence extends into mood as well as structure and style. Even though the story lines are faithfully preserved, the movie "City" is more tongue-in-cheek and playful. (Tarantino's one scene is a bloodily comic car-ride dialogue in which Dwight trades barbs with the severely wounded Jackie Boy, who has a revolver buried in his forehead.)
All the actors seem to have fun, including cameo villains Powers Boothe (as corrupt U.S. senator Roark), Rutger Hauer (corrupt Cardinal Roark) and Michael Madsen (as turncoat Bob) and femme fatale Carla Gugino as lesbian parole officer Lucilleas well as usual pretty-boy heroes Elijah Wood, Stahl and Hartnett playing against type as amoral heavies: kung fu killer Kevin (Wood), gnomish deviate Yellow Bastard (Stahl) and that nameless hit man (Hartnett).
Like most noirs, "Sin City" becomes a melancholy tribute to the old guys who barely survive this cesspool of chaos and the dark: Willis as the weary Bogartean cop Hartigan and Rourke in his fabulous turn as unstoppable killer Marv. In recent years, Rourke has popped up only sporadically, sometimes in neat little turns like the playboy lawyer in Coppola's "The Rainmaker." But here, smothered in latex and a huge vulpine nose, moving like a beast in his lairs, he really puts his stamp on "Sin City."
Marv and Hartigan are the ideal denizens of this crawly nightmare world, and "The Hard Goodbye" is the movie's high point: an ode to alienation and vengeance that keeps the blend of comedy and terror, romance and lunacy in nerve-rending balance.
In fact, the movie improves on the original comics in one important respect: those voluptuous, gleaming visuals. Rodriguez ("Desperado," "Spy Kids") shares directorial credit here with Miller, and it's a gallant gesture; he had to resign his own Directors Guild of America membership to get co-billing for non-member Miller. But Rodriguez shines just as much here as cinematographer and editor; it's the best work he's done in all three categories.
Of course, some audiencesespecially those who dislike excessive screen violencewon't be amused or mollified by this movie's technique, style or spirit of fun. Be forewarned. Sin City is an evil place, full of awful people, an obsessive movie full of monomaniacal tough guys. Yet when Miller and Rodriguez move it into gear, noir lives.
Directed by Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez; special guest director Quentin Tarantino; based on the "Sin City" graphic novels by Miller; photographed and edited by Rodriguez; music by Rodriguez, John Debney, Graeme Revell; produced by Elizabeth Avellan, Miller, Rodriguez. A Dimension Films release from Troublemaker Studios; opens Friday. Running time: 2:04. MPAA rating: R (for sustained strong stylized violence, nudity and sexual content including dialogue).Hartigan - Bruce Willis
Marv - Mickey Rourke
Dwight - Clive Owen
Gail - Rosario Dawson
Shellie - Brittany Murphy
Jackie Boy - Benicio Del Toro
Kevin - Elijah Wood