When I first heard that Robert Rodriguez was going to make a “Sin City” movie, my first reaction went something along the lines of, “Yeah, right, it’s impossible. They’ll never be able to duplicate Miller’s vision. And if they tried, they’ll just foul it up something awful.” Oh how wrong I was! Rodriguez, whose movies have always seemed like the works of a very competent hack (but a hack nonetheless), has not only translated Frank Miller’s graphic novels to the screen with absolute perfection, but “Sin City” might go down in history as the most faithful movie adaptation of a comic book ever. It is that spot on.
More of an anthology than a single movie, “Sin City” tells the tale of Basin City’s lowlife denizens, including but not limited to rough-and-tumble backroom brawler Marv (Mickey Rourke), shady good guy Dwight (Clive Owen), and Hartigan (Bruce Willis), who might just be the only honest cop in the entire Basin City police force.
The film opens by telling how Hartigan, on the verge of retirement from the force, takes on one last mission to save 11-year old Nancy Callahan from the clutches of vile rapist/murderer Nick Stahl. With Hartigan shot to pieces and left for dead (this happens a lot to “Sin City’s” three heroes), the movie switches over to Marv, and how he came to spend one glorious night with hot blonde Goldie (Jaime King) before she is murdered in his bed, and Marv set up to take the fall. Determined to find Goldie’s killer, Marv’s ruthless and bloody search leads him to the highest reaches of Sin City’s power stronghold. The third tale involves Dwight, who takes on the plight of Old Town’s prostitute citizenry, led by the fiery S&M hooker Gail (Rosario Dawson), as they defend themselves from the mob.
At over two hours, “Sin City” makes use of every single second to weave its three stories, with Hartigan’s story beginning in the past and finishing up in the present. Hartigan, Marv, and Dwight never actually meet, except for quick transitional sequences in a bar (called “saloon” in the film) where an adult Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) dances as a stripper. The film is replete with voiceover narration where characters provide pulpy exposition about various things, as well as stretching analogies as far as they will go. And although the movie’s trailer tries to sell that the three main characters eventually hook up to do battle, it’s not so, as Dwight, Marv, and Hartigan always ends up as the lonely avenger against an army of crooked cops, crooked politicians, and crooked clergy. Hey, they don’t call it “Sin City” for nothing, you know.
As an adaptation of Frank Miller’s “Sin City” graphic novels, the movie version is right on the money. Legend has it that Rodriguez, so determined to make the film, shot 10 minutes of footage with his own money as a demo reel to convince the movie’s big name stars to come onboard. His hard work and dedication clearly pays off, as “Sin City” is a visual treat, with dazzling imagery and some hair-raising action sequences. It’s all extremely over the top and cartoonish in nature, and the bad guys always seem to shoot the good guys in the shoulder. Not that it matters, as no matter how many bullets you put in Hartigan and company, they just keep coming back because, dammit, justice demands it.
It’s easy to understand why Rodriguez has credited Frank Miller as co-director despite the rules of the almighty Director’s Guild. Almost every frame of “Sin City” is influenced by, if not sometimes directly lifted from, Miller’s comic book panels. With the look and feel of the film dedicated to utter faithfulness to the source material, the actors, even some of the well-known ones, become the pulp characters that Miller had envisioned. The gruff Bruce Willis is perfect as the hard-nosed Hartigan, and Mickey Rourke, wearing heavy prosthetics, is dead on as bruiser Marv. Clive Owen is good as Dwight, but not as overly impressive as the other two stars. Devon Aoki, as the lethal swordswoman Miho, actually has more of a presence than Dwight in Dwight’s segment.
Other notable names include Rodriguez mainstay Carla Gugino in a scene-stealing role as Marv’s oft-naked, lesbian, and very sexy probational officer; Elijah Wood as a deceptively lethal and cannibalistic serial killer erases all image of Frodo; and a slimy Nick Stahl (“Terminator 3”), covered in yellow cake as the appropriately named Yellow Bastard, oozes perversion. Less successful is Jessica Alba, who continues the oddball trend of movie strippers who never does any actual stripping. Which, speaking purely for the straight men in the audience, is rather disturbing. Let’s hope the trend doesn’t carry over to real life.
Not that everything about “Sin City” works. One does wish that the connection between Dwight, Hartigan, and Marv could have extended beyond the three men just happening to go to the same bar at one point or another in the movie’s timeline. The most we get by way of a connection is Dwight commenting on Marv’s brute qualities. Speaking of which, Dwight’s story (coming in the middle) is possibly the weakest of the three. Rodriguez’s choice to showcase Dwight’s exploits is Miller’s “The Big Fat Kill”, when the better choice might have been “A Dame to Kill For”. Besides being a better story, “A Dame” would also explain why everyone keeps mentioning that Dwight has gotten himself “a new face”. Then again, the answer to this question, as well as Dwight’s tangling with the wicked Ava, would make for an excellent prequel.
From the very first voiceover narration by Josh Hartnett (playing a hitman whose two kills (and only two scenes in the whole movie) bookends the film), there’s little doubt that “Sin City” is in the fine old tradition of film noir. If anything, “Sin City” is so up to its ears in noir that it’s impossible to see it as anything resembling reality, which allows us to accept Hartigan, Dwight, and Marv getting shot dozens of times and coming back for more. It’s in this same spirit of fantasy that allows us to crack a grin when a character gets electrocuted, but doesn’t die, and instead makes a sly insult to his would-be killers. That’s life in Sin City — cartoon noir to the extreme.
Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino (director) / Frank Miller (comics), Robert Rodriguez (screenplay)
CAST: Jessica Alba …. Nancy Callahan
Rosario Dawson …. Gail
Elijah Wood …. Kevin
Bruce Willis …. John Hartigan
Carla Gugino …. Lucille
Josh Hartnett …. The Salesman
Jaime King …. Goldie/Wendy
Clive Owen …. Dwight
Mickey Rourke …. Marv
Nick Stahl …. Junior/Yellow Bastard