As a film critic, I have often bemoaned the amorality and opportunism of the vigilante genre, as well as the sadism and righteous torture on display in movies and television in the wake of Sept. 11. From time to time, I have also lamented the explosion of the comic-book superhero genre. With the recent exceptions of Spider-Man 2 and The Incredibles, these cookie-cutter action thrillers have been crafted for a generation weaned on Game Boys. Meanwhile, computerized effects have taken cinema farther and farther from the world that human beings actually inhabit. And now comes cinema's latest devolutionary milestone, Sin City (Miramax), a graphic novel come to life, its sets copied from the page and regenerated in three dimensions inside a computer, and boasting the most relentless display of torture and sadism I've encountered in a mainstream movie.
My reaction to Sin City is easily stated. I loved it. Or, to put it another way, I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. I loved every gorgeous sick disgusting ravishing overbaked blood-spurting artificial frame of it. A tad hypocritical? Yes. But sometimes you think, "Well, I'll just go to hell."
The movie is co-directed by Frank Miller, who created the Sin City graphic novels, and Robert Rodriguez, who gave up his membership in the Directors Guild of America when it told him he couldn't share a credit with someone who'd never directed a film. (What a putz move by the DGA.) Rodriguez's inclusion of Miller in the process is admirable—not to mention canny. In his last film, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the action was edited in a rhythmless, bash-along style, and despite the picture's A-list cast, it ended up no better than a piece of direct-to-video junk. Frank Miller has given Robert Rodriguez a virtuosity transplant.
The movie is something to see. It's a study in luminous black and white, with sudden and breathtaking splashes of crimson, chartreuse, and a particularly nauseating mustard for a gargoyle-incubus psycho—one of several psychos, by the way: You can barely keep track of them all. Sin City consists of three stories (well, four, if you count a brief prologue and epilogue featuring Josh Hartnett). Each is narrated by a male protagonist in language more hard-boiled than a six-hour egg. And each makes a convincing case for mutilation, dismemberment, castration, and various creative combinations thereof.
Sin City (the place) is a typically Milleresque universe of predators—all dark alleys and oppressive corporate facades and pockets of "Nighthawks" illumination through which faceless denizens scuttle. In order to protect the people they love, the chivalric good guys must sink to the level of the bad guys, except the bad guys have sunk so low that you need the moral equivalent of an oil derrick to go any lower.
Bruce Willis plays Hartigan, an aging police detective who's hunting a serial killer of children—and tangling along the way with his clammy partner (Michael Madsen). Mickey Rourke is Marv, a brutish and cynical barfly—Bukowski on steroids—determined to avenge the murder of a prostitute named Goldie (Jaime King), the closest thing to an angel in his disgusting life. Private eye Clive Owen runs afoul of an abusive misogynistic thug played by Benicio del Toro, and both wind up in Old Town, where the "ladies are the law"—awesomely adept at martial arts and artillery and wearing battle-ready lingerie, to boot.
What a cast: Rosario Dawson as an urban Valkyrie; Jessica Alba as a stripper-ingénue with satin skin; Brittany Murphy, whose big waif eyes leap out of the screen, as a waitress. Powers Boothe, Rutger Hauer, Nick Stahl, Elijah Wood, Michael Clarke Duncan, Carla Gugino, Alexis Bledel with her perfect little heart-shaped face—this is B-picture heaven.
But it's Mickey Rourke's movie. Yes, Mickey's back. Between bodybuilding and sundry forms of self-abuse, he hasn't been the prettiest sight in the last decade. But as Marv he wears prosthetics that thicken his features and make his ugliness poetic, and he has the big-lug powerhouse magnetism of Robert Mitchum. Marv is liberated by the prospect of revenge. He says, "Hell is waking up every goddamn day and not knowing why you're here"—and now he knows. He likes to take his time torturing the bad guys; he almost hates to finish them off. The final encounter between this blockish pugilistic slab of beef and Elijah Wood's Kevin—a mute cannibal psycho geek with little glasses that white out his eyes and who fights like a weightless dervish—is a thrilling gravitational mismatch.
Many of my colleagues think Sin City goes on way too long. Well, if you're going to nitpick. OK, it is odd to hear the ostentatiously fit Bruce Willis describe himself over and over as an old man with a bum ticker. And it's probably overkill to have two separate characters go head first into a toilet—although I liked the curly stools in the first dunking and the bowl's-eye-view in the second. As for the carnage, it's important to add that the blood isn't red. It's black or white or yellow—so you register the quantity but don't have that visceral blehhh reaction you get with most gut-bucket pictures.
Sin City is just distanced enough to be an art object. One car-ride sequence, directed by Rodriguez's pal Quentin Tarantino, is a little jewel of camera movement, lighting, and design. The raindrops are white—it's a painterly deluge. Sin City isn't quite as fascinating to look at as last year's Deco museum Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but it's so much more kinetic and pulse-quickening. Rodriguez doesn't just transplant Miller's frames. He celebrates, even fetishizes them. The images seem dredged up from the collective unconscious of graphic-novel freaks. It seems pointless to tut-tut over the depravity. Sin City is like a must-have coffee-table book for your interior torture chamber.