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Degeneration, Amputation, penetration & redemption
A film review of SIN CITY by Camus

Robert Rodriguez hunted down Sin City's comic-book author/artist Frank Miller 'like a dog'. As a film-maker with a huge respect for his source material, Rodriguez insisted (after he seduced Miller with a scene from what would become Sin City, the movie) that Miller take a co-director's job and credit to retain the integrity of his own work. It was a bold move, an extraordinarily big, open-hearted move for an established DGA member to take. The DGA ( also known as the Directors Guild of America) promptly pointed at their weighty tome of rules and decreed that Rodriguez would not be allowed to partner a first time director. So faced with an intractable rule, Rodriguez did the noble thing. He quit the DGA. Miller was suitably impressed. Everything Rodriguez does seems to qualify for outsider sainthood. The man seems to have the ego of a runt garden pea and yet is a hugely successful feature film director. Usually, the 'ego-less director' is an oxymoron of prodigious size.

The make-a-movie-for-$7,000 man, Robert Rodriguez, is an inspiration to all outsiders. Depending on your point of view, he's either the digital, indie polymath whose working methods are becoming the blueprint for all future film production or his is the extraordinary talent that makes the mild mannered seethe with focussed rage. How can one man be so bloody talented? He shot, cut, supervised visual effects, composed music for, and co-directed Sin City, a literal movie-as-comic book. His links to Tarantino (a guest director on Sin City) and the whole iconic cinema of the current 'hip' has been well documented. His Spy Kids trilogy, a short but welcome blip on the ammo, horror and the gore flicks, reveal the man's prodigious command of the strangest of genre bedfellows. But he has returned to the darkness and with a visual flourish that caresses your eyes as much as the content exhorts them to close. There are scenes on display here that will change the way you will ever see Lord of the Rings again. And no, I'm not giving away just what kind of a creature Elijah Wood plays. But Frodo, he ain't. Let's just say that if a giant eagle were to swoop down and pick him up from his eventual fate, it wouldn't have to have been a very strong bird…

Rodriguez shot the whole of the movie against green screens and then proceeded to create the sets digitally after principal photography. I predict that this will become the benchmark, the 'way' in which movies will evolve. It may not suit some actors (but they are actors, they only pretend after all) but the talent on display here really connected. Despite the artificiality in actual production, the characters are there - in place, for real and perfectly integrated into their Frankmillerverse. And what a 'verse it is… Pure black poetry.

The first time a comic book truly shocked me was the Alan Moore penned The Killing Joke. It was the bastard son of the newly resurrected The Dark Knight Returns putting the twisted man back into Batman and featured a scene that would certainly not soil Adam West's Batverse, nor Tim Burton's muscular, playful take on the franchise. Hell, I'd be surprised if it fit in any universe but Frank Miller's. To say his take is a dark, adult one on any characters thrust before him would be like 'duh'. But what's so wonderfully surprising is that the moral tone of his piece is never in any doubt. You know right from wrong in Miller's worlds just as the sleaziest characters do. Redemption is never too far away even if it's ultimate and occasionally wet. Rodriguez and Miller have made a literal comic book movie and they have made the most original film of the summer. So far. I can't even see the new Batman rocking Rodriguez's boat.

Filled with gloriously ambivalent characters, Sin City slinks out from behind the summer curtain and screams, spittle flecking your eyelashes, 'This is a voice!' and to Rodriguez's credit, it's Miller's own voice. Harsh, grating, entertaining and full of grisly humour it is too. Much like Pulp Fiction, Sin City interweaves three of Miller's tales book-ending with a denouement to the first. Linear progression is effortlessly toyed with and despite the differences in the three stories' narratives, you never get the impression that the movie is an episodic ramble. The mise-en-scene is Miller's comic come to life so much so that 95 percent of it is in glorious black and white. The colour comes every so often emphasizing certain details (eyes, blood, venality). The most heinous villain of the piece (the yellow bastard) is, well, yellow, the colour of putrid stench and his skin stinks of evil. When good eventually triumphs over this evil, it is executed (ouch) in such a way to make you really wince. I don't think a character has met his end in a movie in such a jaw dropping (or jaw-pulping), almost lustful manner - that is if you don't count the grisly demise of another villain just forty minutes earlier.

The actors and ipso facto, the characters - about whom you really care - are superbly cast. One wonders if Rodriguez's and Miller's yardstick was how good they look in black and white. Bruce Willis' Hartigan (an older man in the comic book) is the hard nosed, good cop who wants to retire but only after delivering justice to those who flaunt their political power, a power that handcuffs the cops into turning a blind eye. Roark Jnr. (Nick Stahl) is the son of a powerful senator played with the perfect pitch of dominance by the aptly named Powers Boothe. His son is also a child-raping pedophile whose depths of evil seem to be bottomless. Hartigan, against the wishes of his partner, decides that justice must out and hunts down Roark Jnr. saving ten-year old Nancy in the process. After blowing off Roark's hand and shooting off his genitals (this is rough justice, Sin City style), Hartigan is, too, left for dead, a life for a life. Seemingly finished with this story, we move on to Marv.

There aren't many actors that can blow William Hurt off the screen. In Body Heat, Lawrence Kasdan's southern, sweat soaked, steamy film noir, William Hurt plays a man hypnotised into killing by the ultimate femme fatale, Kathleen Turner. He turns to a man he once put away for some nefarious advice. Sitting on the top bunk of his cell, Mickey Rourke, in a five minute scene with Hurt, acts him under the table. Rourke makes such an extraordinary impression that you spend the next ten minutes of the movie hoping he comes back into it. Alas no. Rourke's breakthrough film was Barry Levinson's Diner. I use breakthrough literally as anyone who's seen this wonderful, small scale character piece will know. It was his 'pecker' that did the breaking through a popcorn box. In the late eighties and nineties, Rourke fell off the Hollywood map, having reconstructive surgery after returning to boxing. His spell as a mechanic grounded him and he now seems to be making superlative inroads back to a career once partnered with youthful excess, a career that derailed him.

Ironically, Rourke's Marv is under a great deal of prosthetic make up but still the character comes alive. Marv is the ultimate tough guy, a warrior of another age let loose in Sin City, an anachronism with almost superhuman strength and a black and white moral streak welded to a righteous sadism that is as adventurous as it is obscene. He's also a man framed for a murder, a murder he did not commit and one he wants to avenge. Boy, does this guy avenge. He could avenge for his country. By Grabbthar's hammer, this guy could avenge. His relentless pursuit of the wrongdoers (that's almost too prissy a word for those monsters in Sin City) doesn't preclude some questioning along the way but once he has convinced the murdered girl's sister that he's on her side, the shopping list items he subsequently picks up makes you just know that someone is going to have a very bad night. Frodo, Mount Doom was nothing to Marv. If there were really justice in the world, Rourke should be nominated for something. Best Bastard…

And so to Bastard No. 2. Take a look at the skinny, whippet assassin in the Bond movie Licence To Kill. That is, was, Benicio Del Toro. Look at this venal officer of the law in Sin City and he is barely recognisable. Benicio has changed in all the right ways. Even as a corpse, he plays it to the hilt. OK, we don't like him because he is a drunkard bully who slaps his girlfriend about. He is subsequently invited to drown in his own piss by a reformed murderer played with conviction by Clive Owen. Here Owen is heroic and utterly at home in black and white. After Del Toro falls (at the hands of a totally unbelievable female assassin even by Sin City's standards BUT - by now - WHO CARES?) the delicate balance between the cop world and the girls who enforce their own patch falls to pieces. There seems to be only one way out. By far the more far fetched of the triple narrative, there is still something wonderfully grand guignol about the resolution of the third tale. Despite it coming third in terms of a league table of entertainment within the movie, it's still gloriously entertaining.

And so to the resolution of Hartigan's story. Willis wakes up in hospital to be told (by Mr. Power, Powers Boothe) that because he shot off his son's reproductive organs, he will now be kept alive as the publicly assumed child rapist and will live to be hated and discarded by society. The power monger gains his own revenge by turning good to perceived bad. Still protecting Nancy, Willis accepts the ruling and goes to prison. A glimmer of hope is Nancy's weekly letters. Only when Willis mistakenly realises that Nancy must have been detected by her assailants (via a severed finger through the post), he vows to find her and protect her from harm. Well, surprise, surprise (no, it really is). Roark Jnr. has been granted a new set of genitals (money, tchah) and as a yellow bastard freak he manages to snare Nancy (now Jessica Alba, a sexy, independent pole dancer) and literally whip her into submission.

How does the naked, hanging by his neck Hartigan get out of this predicament? Check it out. Robert Roderiguez and Frank Miller; I salute you.

Sin City

USA 2005
124 mins
Robert Rodrequez
Frank Miller
Quentin Tarantino
Elizabeth Avellan
Frank Miller
Robert Rodriguez

Frank Miller

Robert Rodriguez
Robert Rodriguez
John Debney
Graeme Revell
Robert Rodriguez
art direction
Jeanette Scott
Bruce Willis
Mickey Rourke
Jessica Alba
Clive Owen
Nick Stahl
Powers Booth
Rutger Hauer
Benicio del Toro
review posted
9 June 2005