Three hardboiled tales from Basin City, an American film noir community. Ex-con Marv (Rourke) avenges a murdered hooker, private eye Dwight (Owen) helps a red light district stay independent from the Mob and disgraced cop Hartigan (Willis) shields a dancer (Alba) from a psychotic sadist (Stahl).
Of all the comic-book adaptations that have ever been mounted, from Flash Gordon in 1936 to The Fantastic Four in 2005, this is liable to score highest in the ‘fan satisfaction’ category. No niggling here along the lines of “Spider-Man shouldn’t have organic web-shooters” or “Batman’s parents shouldn’t be shot by the Joker”. This collaboration between two one-man bands, comic-book writer-artist Frank Miller and director-writer-editor-cinematographer-producer Robert Rodriguez, is as faithful to the source material as those cheapo ’60s Marvel cartoons that panned over panels from the comics while voice-over artists read out the word balloons. Like most successful comics, Sin City created a recognisable concrete-but-unreal world. Miller mixed a stew of thugs in trenchcoats out of Chandler or Spillane, a spice of the ‘bad girl art’ that made paperback covers of the 1950s stand out from newsracks and a splash of the manga-ish stylised goriness which inspired movies buffs like Quentin Tarantino (who guest-directs one scene) have only recently discovered. The film exactly matches the look of the comic: stark black-and-white images, with the occasional shocking or beautiful splash of rich colour. Most modern noirs incline to the blacker side of monochrome, but Miller’s scratchboard techniques, adapted superbly by Rodriguez, often get the most impact out of white – the blank round reflections of a killer’s sunglasses, crosses of sticking-plaster on a much-wounded face, arterial gushes of milky blood.
The movie script also matches the original stories virtually word for word. The original mini-series was about Marv (perfectly incarnated here by comeback kid Mickey Rourke) an unstoppable but soft-hearted freak who avenges the murder of his sweetie-for-a-night by taking on a ghastly cannibal (a blank-faced, wordless, far-from-Frodo Elijah Wood). The film adapts this (later retitled The Hard Goodbye) and two of its follow-ups, The Big Fat Kill and That Yellow Bastard, seemingly unconcerned about the similarities between the plots and characters, confident that the seductive images and picturesque people will hold the interest. Lifting structure from Pulp Fiction, which is hardly in a position to complain if it’s imitated, Sin City has top-and-tail scenes that frame the three episodes, which are told out of order.
Be warned, though – this is a working definition of a boys’ film. Men are either wounded, sensitive mass murderers (good guys) or repulsive, sadistic mass murderers (bad guys). Women are either improbably beautiful whores (good girls) or improbably beautiful pole-dancers (very good girls). Any exceptions, like Carla Gugino as a male-fantasy lesbian, tend to get killed off – nastily.
The extreme stylisation takes the sting out of the pandering, though, in that the hallucinatory female characters tend to be exploiting male desire while living their own lives removed from others’ ideas about them. Arguably, the male characters are even more of an insult to the sex; Rodriguez and Miller’s once-in-a-lifetime cast of bruised, near-unrecognisable faces bring to life an array of tarnished heroes, each tougher than Mike Hammer on steroids, and appalling villains who’d be too deformed and demented even for Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum.
Rodriguez's best film by far and a treat for fans of sinful black-and-white noir with a violent twist.