I attempted to wrap this post up honestly in April when the first trailer for Sin City: A Dame to Kill For was released. Then I kept coming back to it at different intervals, in some way trying to intercept the little hype that might have been occurring for the sequel to Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.
I slowly discovered to my dismay that hype was minimum. Sin City came out 9 years ago in 2005, well before it was common practice to go and create a digital world resembling the dreams of a stylistic artist. That’s nothing new anymore to the film world (it wasn’t exactly brand new then either – Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was a notorious film who brought it in the American eye first and crashed and burned for it). And it was regrettably one of the only popularly appealing factors of a film that is still pretty damn good.
However, I am about to post a two-parter review for Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (partly kickstarting my video reviewing for this blog) and so I ain’t gonna go ahead and do this without going over the first film. Let’s get to it.
Sin City came out in 2005 as an adaptation of Frank Miller’s gritty, rough and tough comic series of the same name, featuring separate yarns, sometimes in the forms of limited series, one-shots and graphic novels. Miller’s comics focused on various arcs of various hard-boiled and grimy characters in the hard-boiled grimy city of Basin City. This film adaptation in particular recreates three of those arcs – The Hard Goodbye (originally titled Sin City) that follows the hulking mass of gleeful carnage that is Marv (Mickey Rourke in a comeback performance that is astoundingly perfect for him) as he hunts for the man who kills the one woman who it seems loved him, The Big Fat Kill where one wrong move on the hands of the prostitute enforcers of Old Town leads to a chess match in calculating how they can cover up their mistake and avoid a mafia powerplay and, easily the weakest of the three, That Yellow Bastard, where a jaded ex-police officer attempts to tie up the last loose end in his career.
Now to explain what really, in my mind, sets apart this film apart from all the other examples like the Star Wars prequels and such that keep using the green-screen world technique (other than budget) is that the world Sin City in itself builds actually has character. It’s not a setting so much as an entity for the film and the true defining feature of the film – that it comes from the imagination of Frank Miller. Which is the truth. It’s not really an adaptation, it’s just a straight lift from the comics for better or worse, with some fat trimming for the sake of cinematic pacing, which I’m glad Rodriguez has an eye for. Robert Rodriguez fought hard to give Miller his due directorial credit (going so far as to renounce his DGA membership – a reason we probably never saw an Oscar nomination in a year where they had a flat out noir homage montage!!!) largely because this is Miller’s story not his and, as much as I currently have a problem with Miller’s views (which I will avoid talking about in this article), it’s a pretty interesting world to indulge in.
Part of Sin City‘s basis is comics which in fact take inspiration from, well, movies. So it’s no surprise that every flourish Miller and ex-wife and collaborator Lynn Varley put forth would translate very easily on the silver screen. This is a world based on the ideals and elements of the 1940s-50s film noir universe and nearly every little detail from the cars, to the costumes, to especially the personas of the characters are shaped with the bleak nihilistic excess of the noir genre in mind to the highest extreme. It glamorizes a film movement that was intent on showing the darkness in man altogether and while at points it comes off at points as misogynistic with its depiction of women as whores (like Frank Miller’s works are consistently privy to do) and tasteless in its frontline showcasing of rape, torture, pedophilia, castration, kidnapping and cannibalism (not even going over the Nazism, incest and violent deviancy that the unadapted yarns went over), what truly appealed to me – as with most of the tales an adolescent STinG got attracted to – was that while the evil would be exaggerated to a higher and despicable level within the black-and-white horror story of crime (with occasional splashes of color that give more definition to the mentality of the moments in the film), it would counter with relatively (ie. only in terms of personality, because goddamn these fuckers take an inhuman amount of pain without even flinching) grounded heroes who aren’t good people so much as they are the only decent people.
Take for example Marv, who is one of my favorite characters in any work of fiction of all. Marv (who, it is implied by the storyline, was a virgin before the opening of The Hard Goodbye) is a very evil person. He will commit horrific acts of violence at any given moment for the smallest of things as talking shit about his coat. I get close to pants-shitting terror every time I watch this movie at the posture where he approaches one of the villains and claims the killing will not give him satisfaction “but everything up to the killing will be a gas.” And that’s the guy who’s supposed to be the hero that scares the shit out of me. He’s a barbarian in a trenchcoat, a giant monster of a person who resembles of a behemoth Frankenstein than the prizefighter he actually could become. He’s also surprisingly a man with principles – he won’t kill you unless you’ve proven to done worse (and he’ll absolutely investigate the necessity to avoid turning down a good murder), he is immensely protective of women, children and animals, he has a fondness for the church and his mother, and is consistently good-natured, either starting a friendly rapport with any random person who approaches the space considerately or cracking jokes even in the worst of times. He occurs to me sort of a samurai stuck in Mongol’s body and decided to have utilized it to the best. Above that, the guy is pretty clearly mentally and emotionally abused. He has very few friends and some are leaned towards using him more for his brute force. The rest of the world hates him, shows him no love and he is considered incredibly stupid of self-flagellating himself with this idea that he’s a fucking idiot, when he may in fact be one of the smarter (albeit pretty deficient due to his scars and damages) characters in the entire universe, almost single-handedly solving The Hard Goodbye, Silent Night, Just Another Saturday Night and other yarns in his mind when others would fail. Very little of this is communicated by the heavy narration or dialogue that features in the film.
Mickey Rourke practically encompasses all of this character without even drawing attention to himself and for that it is one of my favorite performances of cinema. The fact that characters like this give more dimension to superficial storylines like the simple revenge of The Hard Goodbye gives me all the more reason to love Sin City as a movie. Though, some other works don’t really need that much and some can’t be helped.
The Big Fat Kill is easily a favorite storyline of mine (other than A Dame to Kill For) that features Miller at his most nuanced and complex in storytelling. It’s not cookie cutter “ok, this is the revenge and this is the mystery and this is the romance” writing. The plot progresses to a very interesting conflict of gangs and really, in spite of overall looking misogynistic in the looks of the female protagonists, this is one of the few storylines Miller wrote where I could see it coming of as empowering (though, since I’m a man, my consideration on this is unrevokably biased and should be taken with a grain of salt), the Old Town ladies being loudly independent, capable and ruthless (Rosario Dawson, the frontman for this motley crew, is absolutely pitch perfect in her role that I can never stop looking at her as Gail) – essentially Amazonians from Hell – although it’s kind of cut down when they resort to Dwight’s help as being THE hero of the story. In the end, I still find it to be coming from a significantly impressive storytelling place that I haven’t seen from Miller in forever, a dedication more to plot than theme when the plot itself is pretty damn interesting.
Nuance like that makes this piece of work of Miller’s a lot more enjoyable than his other works that I have less tolerance for as a comic reader, such as The Dark Knight Strikes Again, 300, Give Me Liberty or All-Star Batman and Robin which is less based on sending a (usually atrocious) message to the public and just based on delivering some pretty entertaining stories about jaw-locked thugs giving overarcing villains what for.
That Yellow Bastard is absolutely the weakest of the three, but it’s also, I would think, the most digestible of all the three yarns present in the film. If it had been presented entirely first (though I have no problem with the divide between pre-Hartigan’s jailing and during Hartigan’s jailing), it would pretty much set up the enitre point of these stories for better or worse – the emotional beatdown of the few good men in a city that’s rotten to the core, the politics behind the lives of people who don’t know about their strings, every single icky quality about the icky fucking people present in this story, the melodrama and everything. It just doesn’t really mesh as well, though, and it seems more to come from an overall angry place in Miller (and at this point, as most comic book readers or people familiar with Frank Miller know, his angry place is really not a very well-minded place to visit). It is just overall immensely bleak and not half as enjoyable as the other yarns.
And again, it’s a remarkably cool world to look at, made from darkness and right angles and rain and it all seems a bit too entrenched in its own filth and bleakness to not at all feel at home with it. This movie’s production design is the whole star of the movie in styles that could only come from the frazzled mind of Miller, with the coats, the nice little automobiles, the shoes, the hairstyles, the make-up and everything shaping the movie to just leaving the actors to be standees or enzymes for the rest of the mood. The music even gives a grindhouse Austin mood with its ambient razor sounds that feel like a grungey John Carpenter score (and if anybody has shown their love for the works of John Carpenter, it’s Robert Rodriguez). And if they aren’t tuned in, that’s fine, the rest of the movie picks up the slack for the most part.
Speaking of the actors, among Rosario’s fiery presence and Rourke’s somber tower of a being, the acting is usually hit or miss. In a film that largely cuts and pastes its actors alongside each other (meaning most of the actors had not met each other during filming), it is very easy to tell the good performances from the bad by who you absolutely do not think knows is talking to a person and not just a green wall. Nick Stahl, Jessica Alba, a very unfortunately sloppy Benicio Del Toro with great makeup nonetheless, a disappointing Rutger Hauer, a Michael Madsen that seems spaced-out and generic Bruce Willis all seem to fall under this suspects line-up of bad performances in the film that aren’t helped by their degree of separation from the other characters; however, Clive Owen spits out his harsh tones like it’s a second language to him, Brittany Murphy is surprisingly cynical in her very very short appearance, Elijah Wood has an otherworldly silent factor to him and Alexis Bledel and Carla Gugino do their best to interact with the story that they leave a small mark in just as much as Dawson and Rourke do.
In the end, Sin City is solely tied to its source for better or worse – all it is are moving pictures from the pages of the comic series and it will appeal or repel its audience as it is today for its content solely as opposed to 2005 when its stylization seemed a lot more fresh before Zack Snyder took it all and boosted it up to eleven. How it works is more in its sense of humor to itself, its delight in knowing its not half as serious as it thinks it is (and I find Rodriguez to be the bigger facilitator in that sense of humor as The Spirit in 2008 was more soul-sucking than soul-filled) than the works of Miller’s later years and the hefty amount of jadedness he had with the world communicated through his works like Holy Terror and The Dark Knight Strikes Again.
I wonder if there’s still a chance to get him back… even though Sin City seemed to be the median point to his descent into bitterness that people are as in tuned to the ideology he demands. Shame Frank’s gone too far…
We’ll stick around back here and enjoy the few remnants he left behind…