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Sin City   C+

Dimension Films / Troublemaker Studios

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Directors: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez
Writers: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez (based on Miller's graphic novels)
Cast: Jessica Alba, Benicio Del Toro, Brittany Murphy, Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Elijah Wood, Rosario Dawson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Michael Madsen, Josh Hartnett, Carla Gugino, Jaime King, Nick Stahl.

Review by Rob Vaux

Robert Rodriguez set out to make Sin City the most fastidiously accurate comic-book adaptation ever. In that sense he has succeeded admirably. The film is an almost perfect replica of Frank Miller's groundbreaking series -- from the black-and-white cinematography to the digital sets just this side of surreal. The cast is the uncompromising embodiment of Miller's hard-boiled characters: gumshoes, gun molls, hatchet men, and dirty cops, all clashing and wheeling amid the mean streets of the title metropolis. The dialogue is lifted directly from the page, in most cases unchanged. Every shot has one of Miller's frames as its genesis; Rodriguez even flashes a few originals on-screen during the credits, to give us a solid point of reference. In a thousand different ways, Sin City hearkens to the two-tone graphics that spawned it, straying as little as possible from the initial creative vision.

The trouble is that accuracy isn't the same thing as quality. There are inherent differences between the mediums that Sin City never thinks to address, causing hairline fractures in its superficially perfect facade. While the best parts of the comic are reproduced, so too are the flaws -- the one-note personalities, the recycled plot devices, the self-indulgent "deader they die" clichés -- which Rodriguez's technique exacerbates like a pimple under a magnifying glass. The results are mixed in the extreme: visually stunning, but also empty and strangely silly at times. We cheer for the actors, but blanch at what they say; we marvel at the images, but snarl when they flash by so quickly. All of it can be traced back to Rodriguez's stated thesis, to which Sin City is faithful all the way to its grave.

Consider the process of reading a comic book. It's an individual experience, controlled by the reader who decides how long to spend lingering on each panel. Miller's gorgeous extreme-contrast imagery is well-suited to such contemplation, evoking details through cunning suggestions that take awhile to sink in. The movie, however, doesn't move at our pace. It moves at Rodriguez's pace, regulated by the flashy rhythms of his edits. Though he endeavors to reproduce the panel-by-panel feel of the books, the demands of cinema force him to keep it moving in order to maintain the energy. Instead of immersing ourselves in the material, we simply skim across it, gleaning only the surface details before moving on to the next razzle-dazzle visual. Eventually, frustration begins to set in.

More distressing is the way that Miller's shortcomings are reproduced along with his strengths. Sin City is divided into three parts, each adapting a complete story from the comics. "The Hard Goodbye" is a tale of revenge as street-tough Marv (Mickey Rourke) seeks out the killers of a hooker (Jamie King) who showed him a moment of kindness. "The Big Fat Kill" follows the fugitive Dwight (Clive Owen), also trying to protect the ladies of the night, this time from a potential mob takeover. Finally, "That Yellow Bastard" gives us a world-weary cop (Bruce Willis) who endures the loss of everything he holds dear to protect a young exotic dancer (Jessica Alba) from a corrupt senator's sociopathic son (Nick Stahl). The differences between the three stories lie in the details -- they're all variations on the same basic theme, as most of Miller's work is. But taken together, their similarities grow eerily repetitive, suggesting not so much the scope of the comics as their inevitable repetition.

Dialogue becomes another recurring problem, which is particularly troublesome since it all comes straight from Miller's text. But again, reading words in your head differs from hearing them spoken aloud; brought before the cold light of day, they elicit more giggles than gasps. Though the script possesses a Chandler-esque rhythm that becomes comforting after awhile, it's hard to take it seriously when lines like "My warrior woman, my Valkyrie, you'll always be mine" are delivered with a stony gravitas. The performances seem geared toward heightening the artifice: deliberately stilted and rendered in staccato bursts. As hypertext, it has some success in pointing out its own superficiality, but the loving reverence shown by Rodriguez and Miller (who share directing credit) struggles against humor that sometimes veers into the unintentional.

It's all the more dispiriting for the fact that parts of Sin City are truly brilliant. Paper thin though it may be, there's still undeniable power on-screen. Scars and bandages stand out in glowing white, while faces appear positively luminous beneath the deliberately artificial skyline. Rourke and Willis are well-suited to this ultra-noir world, and Elijah Wood makes a striking presence as a mute serial killer. The film is bookended by a sharp pair of vignettes featuring Josh Hartnett, and peppered with moments where the marriage of vision and theme becomes close to irresistible. Sadism, brutality, and rampant machismo are here as well, but as fans of Miller can attest, their over-the-top qualities are part of the appeal. And yet for all that, Sin City is never as deep, as exciting, or even as fun as it wants us to think. Other comic adaptations (Sam Raimi's Spider-Man comes to mind) were able to transcend their funny-pages origins while paying deep and abiding homage to them. For Rodriguez, loyalty is the altar upon which everything is sacrificed. The results are daring and ambitious, to be sure, but ultimately nothing more than a Xerox copy. I'm sure that Miller is quite pleased with Sin City. To my unending sadness, I just wasn't so easily seduced.

Review published 03.29.2005.

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