Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Blood For Blood And By The Gallons

Sin City(2005)
Director: Robert Rodruguez,Frank Miller,Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Bruce Willis,Mickey Rourke, Clive Owens, Jessica Alba

When my friends and I first saw Sin City back in the Spring of 2005, we were completely blown away. It became an instant cult classic among my small group and we went to see the film no less than three times in a single weekend. At the time I thought that Sin City was one of the most important American movies since Pulp Fiction(1995) with it's stylized design and computer backdrops. In some ways, I was partially right as the computer landscape has been used increasingly more by filmmakers, notably in the expansive world of James Cameron's Avatar(2010). This film was seriously loved by my friends and I far beyond the visual aesthetics. We were drawn to the seedy plot and characters and revelled in the dark universe that Frank Miller had created. Of course, we were also young, dumb and full of get the idea. So the appeal of the film was greatly enhanced. At it's core, Sin City is a pure adolescent fantasy filled with blood and mayhem, macho characters and often nude and/or scantily clad women. In these respects, the film works on that simple escapist level for young male viewers. However, it's also what limits and ages the film and shines an often critical light on it's creators.

There's no reason to go through a detailed plot synoposis, like I have done with many other reviews. The film is divided into a series of multiple narratives that are loosely connected in the realm of Sin City. The overarching story that bookends the film is about a hitman(Josh Hartnett) who waxes philosophic over the city. The other stories involve a psychopath named Marv(Mickey Rourke) trying to avenge the death of a hooker(Jamie King) and in the process uncovering a whole underground plot. The next is about a recently released felon named Dwight(Clive Owens) who is battling corrupt police officers and a mob led by Michael Clark Duncan. He is aided by an amy of armed prostitutes(!) led by Rossario Dawson! And the last story is divided in two sections, one at the beginning and the final towards the end and that involves a detective Hartigan(Bruce Willis) and his attempts to save a girl(Jessica Alba) from a killer named "Yellow Bastard" that he disfigured years before. They are all brutal, bloody stories that involves equal doses of humor and a mentality straight from the grindhouse. The language is reminiscent of the 1940s film noir and the look is about right, but the soul is missing. The beauty of film noir was that while they often twisted and warped in their plots, they were also often subtle and provided a dark reflection into the underbelly of society.

Sin City is the equivalent of an artsy exploitation movie and there's not neccesarily anything wrong with that, except that the dramatic elements that make us return to our favorite books and movies is largely missing from this film. In many ways, it's like many of Robert Rodriguez's other films, offering alot of fun and thrills that make you excited upon initial viewing, but leaving you feeling empty afterwards. What his films ultimately become are perfect examples of cinematic junk food. Rodriguez is great at creating action scenes and titilating the viewer. He always has clever action concepts like an assault rifle in a guitar, like in Desperado(1995) or his half hour gorefest at the conclusion of From Dusk Til Dawn(1996). He also has a penchant for filming beaiutiful women, case in point being the snake dance performed by Salma Hayek in From Dusk Til Dawn(1995). In this movie he does the same thing with Carla Gugino, who was born to play a femme fatale. Her nude scene is a standout, topless, draped in shadows and grasping a revolver. One of my personal favorite sexy images and the most memorable of the film.

The cast are having a ball and add to the fun of the film. Willis gets one of his best roles in years as Hartigan, even though it requires him to little more than go through the motions of being gruff and tough, much like Dirty Harry. Clive Owens is often underlooked, probably because he's in the weakest of the stories, but he adds a strange sense of humor that is welcome to the proceedings.Mickey Rourke practically had a career revival due to his flamboyant performance as the twisted Marv. He's a sick individual, but Rourke makes him likeable and cool, even if we're not sure why we should root for him. His makeup and demeanor conjure up images of the Frankenstein Monster and in black and white, he looks magnificent. Of course, so do the ladies who all have an added aura of beauty because of the black and white photography. Jessica Alba has always been a weak actress, but developed a following because of her role as the most heavily clad stripper only Hollywood could produce. Rossario Dawson looks great in her s&m gear, decked out with an Uzi and a crazy spiked hairdo. She clearly relishes the role and so do we in the audience. Carl Gugino has the voice and look of a 40s bombshell, and while she dosen't have much to do but walk around in the buff, her presence is welcome to both the noir fan and the voyeur. The late Brittany Murphy also adds a spunky appeal to her role as cocktail waitress in an all too brief role and lest I forget, Jaime King as the doomed prostitute and her twin sister(!) also never looking better. Other notables in the cast include Powers Boothe, Benicio Del Toro, Elijah Wood, Rutger Hauer and Nick Stahl who all add to the bizarre film's seedy underworld. Stahl's Yellow Bastard character being a particularly memorable Hollywood grotesque, made even more repellent by his character's penchant for young children!

There's no doubt that Sin City is a rather twisted thriller and not for all tastes. It works best for the younger set who are less akin to elaborate and convoluted plots and was part of the reason it left such an impression on my friends and I. It delivers the goods for young boys, the requisite number of cool guys, guns, cars, blood and boobs that made this so enjoyable. Sin City can be such a visually appealing film at times that perhaps it's easy to overlook it's weaker story elements, but seems to serve as the shining example of such a mistake. Frank Miller got alot of control on this film and adapted his comic books, practically verbatim. This worked in some ways and failed in others. What was effective on the page, does not always translate intelligently to the screen and vice versa. Instead of adapting a more advanced and detailed screenplay, the film is shot as written in the comics and while the visuals succeed, very little else does. Miller can be a very effective writer and his affection for the film nour is appreciated, but his often blunt approach also lessens the impact. The Spirit(2008)  being the most deplorable example of this on film so far. The problem with such direct comic to film adaption is also a hurdle that was faced by the mediocre Zakk Snyder and his hugely disapointing, Watchmen(2009) which had been adapted from one of the most celebrated graphic novels of all time. His almost shot for shot approach left the same empty feeling that one gets with this film, which also shared a strong visual appeal. Hollywood has a hard time combining artforms, the same problem can be said not just with comic books, but video games as well. They never seem to learn that taking liberties and expansion are good things and allow for greater depth and emotional interest. A comic is two dimensional and it's the filmmaker's job to take it to the third dimension. It's not impossible. Just ask Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi or Richard Donner.

For me nowadays, Sin City is nothing more than a mild nostalgic reminder of getting out of High school and like Eighteen by Alice Cooper, being at that point of life, where boy becomes man. Sin City can be a great trip back to those adolescent days and certainly sex and action never fully age, for if they did, so would libido and adventure with it. It's not the great film it could have been, but on that simple visceral level it works. And besides, Carla Gugino is always worth seeing again.

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