Of course, with "Sin City," Robert Rodriguez didn't set out to protect legendary comics auteur Frank Miller's source material from Allan Bloom-style guardians of high culture but from the transmogrifications of villainous Hollywood superagents and nefarious studio execs. The road to "Sin City," in other words, was a high one — elevated by a fan's pure adulation and loyalty. While doubtless his commitment to preserving the original work has made Rodriguez a geek-land champ — especially as stories about his superheroic break with the Directors Guild of America have circulated (The DGA refused to let him to share directing credit with Miller, so he quit the guild), it's also led to a curious new stance, which sounds a little like the 98-pound weakling squawking supremacy. "I don't want to insult the graphic novel by turning it into cinema," Rodriguez said in a TV promo that aired last week, "I want to turn cinema into a graphic novel."
For a relentlessly violent and exploitive noir knockoff, "Sin City" is mystifyingly flat and static — cartoonish, even, if you want to get tautological about it. (And trust me, you won't be able to help it.) Rodriguez has said it was his goal to "translate" the series into film rather than "adapt" it, without the interloping mediation of a script (the director transcribed the books, and no screenwriting credit was designated). But as someone bilingual, he should know that there's such a thing as being too literal — you can fail to express the spirit of a thing by sticking too closely to the letter.
Cinema has plenty of things in common with sequential art, but spatial limitations, lack of sound and an inherently nonrepresentational style (compared to film, anyway) aren't three of them. In "Sin City," Miller's thought bubbles have been preserved, packed and exported into voice-over tracks as lovingly as if they had been found on scrolls in a tomb outside Cairo, and they choke the movie like a hot smog. The characters' audible musings are not the ironic, unreliable kind that contradict the action and create a tension between a character's perception and reality but a relentlessly torpor-inducing on-the-nose stream-of-consciousness — all "bum tickers" and "fat steaks" and "crazy broads" — that mimic the hard-boiled style of film noir spoofs.
Transpiring in the nightmare world of Basin City — a place so corrupt even the ingénue is a stripper — "Sin City" is a triptych of stories, loosely woven together "Pulp Fiction"-style. In the first story, John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), a cop on his last night on the job, risks his life to save an 11-year-old girl named Nancy (Makenzie Vega) from being raped and filleted by Roark Jr. (Nick Stahl), the psychotic son of a corrupt senator. (Roark Jr. is later transformed into the freak super-villain, That Yellow Bastard.) The wide-eyed child grows up to be a gyrating Jessica Alba in an abbreviated cowgirl costume. If this sounds dismaying, you don't want to know how it ends.
In the second story, a hulking man-beast and freelance avenger known as Marv (Mickey Rourke) spends the night in a heart-shaped bed with a hooker named Goldie (Jaime King) and wakes up to find her dead. The romantic interlude, we're given to understand, was a Very Big Deal for Marv (even in "Sin City," girls have standards), so he sets out to avenge her murder. After torturing a handful of thugs, Marv winds up on a desolate farm where his missing parole officer, the sexy Lucille (Carla Gugino), is being held captive by a young cannibal named Kevin (Elijah Wood). Kevin enjoys making girl sushi and then displaying the leftover heads on the wall like hunting trophies. (At least he uses the whole prostitute.)
In the third story, Dwight (Clive Owen), a private investigator, finds himself in the middle of a turf war between corrupt cops and vigilante streetwalkers when he helps kill the cop (Benicio Del Toro) who's been harassing his girlfriend, Shellie the waitress (Brittany Murphy). In the process, he's reunited with his ex, head hooker Gail (Rosario Dawson). When things start to get really gruesome, old sparks fly.
"Sin City" is a visually striking movie, though like most disconcertingly pretty things, it gets boring fast. In the precredit sequence, a black-and-white Marley Shelton, sheathed in a blood-red sequined gown, gazes out over a moonlit penthouse terrace where she's joined by a dapper Josh Hartnett. He lights her cigarette; her eyes flare green. For an instant, I thought a new fragrance by Chanel was on the cusp of being introduced.
One wasn't, of course, but the movie's slick, all-digital universe, though technically impressive, feels cloistered and airless, and it's hard to beat back the occasional sneaky feeling that the characters aren't, in fact, roaming the streets of a concrete jungle but standing on a smallish stage. The chamber piece effect amplifies the deliberate brutality of the violence, "Sin City's" real reason for being. Once it really gets going, it becomes clear that the movie's film noir pose is a coy justification — like ordering a salad for the croutons and bacon bits — for the smorgasbord of stylized gross-outs and gleeful sadism that dominate the show. "Special guest director" Quentin Tarantino provides just one of the movie's funniest moments of smart-aleck nihilism, but his influence is all over the place. Hartigan treats Roark Jr. to a plug in the groin that looks like a slap on the wrist when compared to the relish, the extravagant gourmandise, really, with which Marv cuts into Kevin (literally, with a saw) and other bad guys. Marv may simper and pine for "that angel" Goldie, but it's killing that supplies his joie de vivre.
Given the pitch of the violence, the movie's hyper-stylization starts to seem merciful after a while. The gag factor of severed heads, gnawed-off hands, crotches blown to smithereens, and foreheads impaled by large chunks of metal is slightly diminished by the use of ever-tasteful black and white and cartoonish yellow or glowing white blood. (Though the latter, especially as it spurts from bullet wounds, bears an unfortunate resemblance to pigeon poop.)
The acting is equally "stylized" — which you may interpret at will. Unrecognizable in his facial prosthetics, Rourke is the only member of the large cast to fill out his larger-than-life monster rather than let it flatten him. He slips into the character of the troubled, misunderstood pariah who chugs pharmaceuticals straight from the vial as easily as if the role were a warm bath. Willis, Owen and Del Toro reprise their intermittent gigs as tough guy, slightly neurotic hot guy and ghoul, respectively, and do a serviceable if not remarkable job. Gugino plays a tough cookie without resorting to mannerisms. But Murphy dials up the "dame" factor to the point of seeming as if she's stuck in an old "In Living Color" sketch (remember Black and White lady?), and Alexis Bledel, on loan from "Gilmore Girls," plays a double-negative obsessed prostitute named Becky in the stammering, motor-mouthed style of a prissy Yale sophomore who got off on the wrong exit in New Haven.
Such, I guess, are the vicissitudes of green-screen acting — it's harder to get a sense for what everyone else is doing and where they're doing it. Repellent as it is, the carnage in "Sin City" does have the odd effect of tethering it to the material, flesh-and-blood world. (Unlike, say "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," which was so ethereal it seemed as if the characters had seeped in through the air vents.) The movie feels like a reductive exercise. Rodriguez might have accomplished what he set out to do, but I'm not sure he's done anyone any favors.
MPAA rating: R for sustained strong stylized violence, nudity and sexual content, including dialogue.
Times guidelines: Extremely graphic violence, including torture, cannibalism and dismemberment.
Benicio Del Toro...Jackie Boy
Dimension Films presents, a Troublemaker Studios production. Directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, on whose graphic novels the film is based. Special guest director Quentin Tarantino. Producer Elizabeth Avellán. Executive producers Bob Weinstein and Harvey Weinstein. Shot and cut by Robert Rodriguez. Costume supervisor Nina Procter. Music Robert Rodriguez, John Debney, Graeme Revell. Art director Jeanette Scott. Running time: 2:04. In general release.