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The International Writers Magazine
: Film Review

LilyJ Parker

Sin City Dir. Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
Guest dir. Quentin Tarantino
Hartigan – Bruce Willis
Marv – Mickey Rourke
Dwight – Clive Owen
Jackie Boy – Benicio Del Toro
Nancy – Jessica Alba
Gail – Rosario Dawson
Miho – Devon
Goldie – Jaime King

Kevin – Elijah Wood

I'll first address the girls: SEE THIS MOVIE! It is not just a guys’ flick, with guns and strippers (although both feature prominently). It’s also very stylish, very funny, and more clever than you’d think.
I secondly address the guys: don’t go if you’re squeamish or…sensitive. Audience behaviour during this film is almost as entertaining as the film itself – in particular the synchronised leg crossing exhibited by around 90% of the male audience. Those who didn’t move at least winced…you’ve been warned, and you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it. And oh yeah – you’ll never look at Bruce Willis in the same way again.

There seems to have been a rash of comic book adaptations in recent years – perhaps filmmakers are now beginning to understand the obsessive appeal of comics, and the cult followings they inspire. (I now admit that, thanks to Unbreakable, Constantine, and now Sin City, I too have been bitten by the comic book bug). Sin City, however, stands out. Graphic both in violence and in style, it was inspired by the cult graphic novels of Frank Miller. This is quite possibly the most faithful adaptation of a comic book that you will ever find, from the plotlines and characters to the visual idiosyncrasies so typical of Miller’s artwork. Three of the novels were chosen for adaptation: The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill, and That Yellow Bastard, with a tantalising glimpse into A Dame To Kill For, currently slated for adaptation in the next sequel. I can’t wait.

Jessica Alba is Nancy

Benicio del Toro

Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy showed us that collaboration with the creator does not necessarily guarantee that the transition to the big screen will be smooth and faithful. But Miller co-directing the adaptation of his own work seems to have worked. The first time I saw Sin City, I went with The Guys – all of whom are ardent comic readers and Sin City faithfuls. Not one of them had a single complaint of ‘they changed that!’ or ‘they can’t have cast them!’ You get the picture. Apparently it’s perfect.

Talking of the cast, anyone who’s seen the trailer will know that the cast is lengthy to say the least. Populated by actors ranging from Rutger Hauer to Elijah Wood, the film is dominated by a triumvirate of Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke, and Bruce Willis. Overall, Willis is very impressive: some of his voiceovers at the start sound a little strained, and teeter dangerously close to parody, but this is more than compensated for by the rest of his performance. He manages to make Hartigan both brutal and tender through unreserved violence and (after the first couple of scenes) touching voiceovers. I suppose it does help that we already know Willis as the hard-man-with-a-heart, but all the same he seems very at home in Basin City, and is utterly convincing. Also, it’s nice to see an actor who isn’t afraid to act his age. What, a Hollywood actor play an action man past his prime? Unthinkable? In most cases, yes, but here it’s simply effective.

As far as I’m concerned, Mickey Rourke turned in the best performance of them all. Marv the mourning Neanderthal may have the best lines and most impressive action pieces, but he also comes with one hell of a lot of prosthetics. The fact that Rourke can even talk through that massive chin is admirable, to be able to emote through it is even more impressive. More than any of the other actors, Rourke truly looks to be enjoying himself as he bounds around Basin City, wreaking havoc with any obstacles in his way. It’s another inspired piece of casting: Mickey Rourke himself was described as ‘a bit of a law unto himself’ twenty years ago. I guess it still stands.

Clive Owen’s performance, it has to be said, was among the weakest. In many of his scenes, his acting was positively wooden, although paradoxically his voiceovers were among the best. There were scenes which benefited from the lack of expression: to hold Benicio Del Toro’s head in a urine-filled toilet without so much as a flicker across the face is downright unnerving. Still, The Big Fat Kill’s adaptation suffers from Dwight’s blankness: if it weren’t for the voiceovers, there would be little to show Gail and Dwight’s supposedly all-consuming passion.

This section is, in fact, saved by Del Toro, whose Jackie Boy alternates between frightening and surreal. Menacing and ominous outside Shelley’s door, predatory in Old Town, bizarre in Dwight’s hallucinations – Del Toro seems to specialise in show-stealing cameos. This one ranks up there with Fenster. The cameos in Sin City become another factor adding to its feeling of completeness: Basin City is populated. Movie buffs will have plenty of fun, spotting the creator (Frank Miller playing the priest), or the forgotten (Rutger Hauer atop a cathedral instead of a skyscraper). Other little roles provide humour in this dark land – look at Brian & Klump (Tommy Flanagan and Rick Gomez), their misplaced eloquence providing Shakespearian idiots for the twenty-first century. And for someone with barely five minutes’ screen time, Nicky Katt stands out with a combination of deadpan one-liners and swastika tattoos. "Deadly little Miho" is a revelation. She doesn’t have a single line, and she doesn’t appear to need them. The poise and elegance with which she dispatches Jackie Boy and his tagalongs is both breathtaking and brutal. Sin City, it would seem, is the one film in history which can get away with casting supermodels and asking them to be actresses. True, Jaime King is a little stilted in places, but at other times she almost resembles Bacall.
Jaime King in Bacall mode
The original graphic novels were very noir-ish, which is probably one of the factors allowing such a smooth transition to the big screen. But when was the last time a mainstream movie made such prominent use of voiceovers? Sin City is not an easy film to watch at first, thanks to this. We hear a character’s every thought, and it’s distracting. But bear with it – this style is the style of Frank Miller’s novels, and it is the dialogue put in to fill the screen time that is weak. After maybe ten minutes, we just accept the voices (and I walked out of the cinema making conscious efforts to stop thinking in my own voiceover!).

In a film with such a heavily populated cast, the performances are certainly prominent. But this film is also a showpiece for a multitude of special effects techniques, most obviously the green screen. Sin City is effectively Roger Rabbit in reverse. While Robert Zemeckis put Jessica Rabbit in Eddie Valiant’s office, Robert Rodriguez has effectively put most of Hollywood’s finest into Miller’s illustrations. Much has been made of cast members never even meeting, and digital trickery changing performances. Yet to shoot an entire film on green screen – it’s both ambitious and brave: actors have to act without a setting, imagining their surroundings. Still, it has allowed the film to match the novel, frame by frame. Key shots in particular (such as Hartigan’s jail cell, Goldie and Marv on the bed) match perfectly. Unnecessary? Actually the result is stunning. Why aren’t special effects used like this more often? Much was made of Lord of The Rings trilogy for its use of effects. Without detracting from those films too much, I found it much more satisfying to watch effects create something this iconic and original; here the effects are truly something special.

Sin City is not conventional, and that’s why I love it. It is far more complex than many give it credit for, and is not filled with the gratuitous violence you might expect. Instead, its three twisted love stories have vengeance tempered with tenderness, all governed by brutal chivalry. This, combined with Miller’s iconography makes for a largely mesmerising experience. True, it is flawed in places, but where it’s not, it’s brilliant.
© LJP June 2005

Lily studies Film at the University of Portsmouth


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