Welcome to Basin City, home to a menagerie of killers, hookers, losers, and dreamers, all waiting for their next big score. Marv (Mickey Rourke) is a hulking thug, who, after spending one night with an angelic woman (Jamie King), becomes heartbroken and volcanically vengeful when a cannibalistic hitman (Elijah Wood) murders her. Dwight (Clive Owen) is looking to put the hurt on Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro), after witnessing his violent attitude with the local, heavily armed prostitutes of Old Town (including Rosario Dawson, Alexis Bledel, and Devon Aoki). And policeman John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is looking for redemption after saving Nancy Callahan's (Jessica Alba) life years earlier, only to be called back into action when The Yellow Bastard (Nick Stahl) reemerges to finish the job.
Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City" (IMDb listing) is hands down the most authentic reproduction of a comic book experience ever seen on the big screen. Ang Lee and George Romero tried to capture the aesthetic before by placing panels in the frame, but Rodriguez, armed with his own personal Austin filmmaking armada, has gone beyond that. He's turned the theater itself into an ink and paint experience.
The source material comes from the graphic novels of renowned artist Frank Miller (who also co-directs and cameos as a priest), who doesn't hold back adapting his lurid tales of revenge, despair, and violence to the screen. If any film should be rewarded with a medal of artistic integrity, it's "Sin City." This is one of the most innovative creations in cinema history, yet the picture retains a highly charged shadowy tribute to the hard-boiled noir genre of yesteryear. Think of it as Dashiell Hammett for the Playstation generation. Rodriguez has meticulously transferred Miller's black and white images from the page to the screen, and his lathered fanboy love for Miller's work shines like a diamond throughout the film. Rodriguez sticks hard to Miller's vision, which means that "Sin" is devastatingly violent; shootouts, beheadings, cannibalism, and the occasional genital mutilation are all part of an average day in Basin City. Since the film was shot in black and white and features a highly charged comic book tone, the MPAA has been suspiciously nice to Rodriguez and awarded the picture an R rating. But fair warning to the squeamish: this is a severely grisly, undeniably visceral experience.
It comes as a small surprise that Rodriguez is able to mute his stylistic tendencies for "Sin City." An enthusiastic proponent of digital cinema, Rodriguez's last two films ("Spy Kids 3-D," and "Once Upon a Time in Mexico") were crippled by the filmmaker's insistence on using the excess of shot choices found with the camera's ease of use. Since Miler's panels are king here, Rodriguez stifles his overanxious editing and multitude of angles for the most part, instead trusting a street-tough style. It's only when "guest director" Quentin Tarantino pops up to helm a quick driving scene between Dwight and Jackie Boy that we see an overuse of digital technology.
Extending the blessing of integrity to his cast, Rodriguez gives every member of his company something interesting to play with, and he doesn't pull any punches with their characters or destinies. This being an anthology film, there is a large revolving door of assorted hooligans to pick from. A highlight in the cast is Mickey Rourke. As the angular, fiercely protective and destructive Marv, Rourke gets the most mileage out of Miller's smoky, constant narration, and cuts the most memorable figure in Rodriguez's photography. It's the best work Rourke has done in years, and since his is the first tale told, he sets the performance bar high. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast cannot always match him.
Deducting from the "Sin City" appeal are the stabs at broad comedy. Clearly, Rodriguez is buffering the impact of the violence with some hammy yucks, but they're needless. There's already enough gallows humor in "Sin" to last for three movies. The last thing this film needs is moments like the one featuring actor Nicky Katt (seen briefly as a fodder for multiple arrows), who performs as though he's in a Monty Python production.
There's really no way around the fact that "Sin City" is a highly specialized product for a very specific audience. Kudos must be paid to Rodriguez and Miller for staying so close to the graphic novel, but in doing so, they've created a deeply polarizing picture that might not appeal to those unfamiliar with Miller's work. However, it's hard to deny the imagination on display here, and the specificity of the filmmaking. "Sin City" is a memorable, disturbing triumph.
Filmfodder Grade: B+