Sin City (2005, Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller)



Though it’s a nasty visualization of unsavory macho fantasy through and through, the Frank Miller adaptation Sin City is not altogether indefensible; certainly it has a distinctive look, and though its characters are all stereotypes, much like the old comic book lift Heavy Metal its sheer adolescence does boast a certain spirited sincerity. That doesn’t make it any more palatable to actually watch it, but — as pointlessly violent and sexist as it is — at least it isn’t built on absolute contempt like the garbage we’re spoon-fed from a lot of similar corners.

Basically the movie encompasses three shorts, which range from ludicrously stupid to almost okay, sometimes in rapid succession, for different reasons. The stories all come from Miller’s “graphic novels,” and I can tell you in the interest of full disclosure that I’m not in the audience for comics and I don’t really seek to understand them as an art form. It’s not that I doubt there is artistry in the form, the form just doesn’t interest me. The chief failing of the movie as serious narrative (or goof-off narrative, for all I care) is that the stereotyping extends to the storytelling. The comics are an attempt to capture the surface gloss of film noir and noir fiction, but simply for the sake of style, not in service of a story. Noir clichés are forced into the structure, and the story, dialogue, characterization are expected to serve the style, rather than the other way around.

All three segments — repetitive stuff about dames, killing, T&A, drug dealers, fugitives, hookers, T&A, tough guys, murder, hitmen, loving this dirty town, T&A, etc. — end up wasting their best elements or just sabotaging their potential. Clive Owen and Mickey Rourke both serve their characters well, considering the rigid constraints they have to work against. The tale with Rourke at the center is absorbing, but it flies off the handle once it introduces Elijah Wood as a nonverbal cannibalistic weirdo. Clive Owen’s sequence exhibits the most advanced attitude toward sex workers in an American film since I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang but goes off on action-movie tangents and languishes in cartoonish excess, at least until its fairly fresh conclusion. The Bruce Willis story features the best acting in the picture, and overall it’s the best, certainly the one with greatest audience identification. Much of its success can be attributed to both Willis and to the lack of noir “imitation.” It plays more like a movie such as Experiment in Terror, the streamlined good cop/bad criminal crime drama of black and white heroes and villains; it’s mythology more than ambiguity, really the opposite of noir.

The major criticism of the movie comes not from anything dealing with the individual segments but in the fact that the reason this is atypically watchable material from director Robert Rodriguez is that he essentially did nothing with the source beyond technical polishing. No work was done to make Miller’s comics function in a cinematic sense; the director insisted not on “adapting” but “translating,” and the result is both cinematically abhorrent and pointless. The tales already exist told this way in another medium. Why duplicate it?

Movies aren’t comic books. This is emphasized with remarkable clarity by the entire directorial style of the film, which is hopelessly stilted. Comic books are highly stylized still pictures; what looks good on a page is not what works in live action with a mobile camera shooting film. Ask any director who has tried to rely completely on storyboards. Modifications have to made; if they’re not, your movie looks as if it’s being shot through a hundred filters separating action from audience, the frame looks busy and unharmonious, and every sequence ends up feeling horribly studied, which thwarts the pacing. The storytelling is good by Rodriguez standards because he didn’t do any of it. Visually, it’s a raw deal, both in its compositions and movement and in its pretentious, self-adoring spotted color in black & white scheme. Few films have ever looked less spontaneous, less alive, than this one. Rodriguez set out to film a series of still pictures, throwing actors into the frame, and that’s all he did.

This might be a little more forgivable than I’m making it, were it not for the movie’s excesses in comic-book fantasy violence territory, which attempt to bring the kind of “action” that is par for the course in comic books to a cinematic setting. This is a total failure, and a waste of energy. Tarantino cartoonishness takes over at various points (he directed two scenes), and it isn’t a good kind of cartoonishness or a kind that would enhance the comic-book aesthetic, it’s just overblown and annoying, and there’s too much silliness of the usual pompous Tarantino/Rodriguez variety. All of their material is much akin to watching men study their dicks, and this is no exception, it’s just a little more conservative because Miller is presumably a bit less of an insect than they are.

One strange sideline to this is that Sin City, the film, is only eleven years old now but it already feels like an ancient relic of a completely expired film-geekdom that’s been thoroughly supplanted by a different kind of comic book-driven culture, maybe a mildly sillier one and one with a more egregious death-grip on the industryand artform, but also one that wallows a bit less in violence and misogyny. Seeing the movie now it’s remarkable how strongly you feel like the world has passed it by completely, though it does remain popular enough to stay on the IMDB Top 250. It also remains annoying, and it feels more so now that it’s begun to look terribly dated.

In the broadest sense, what makes Sin City so annoying is that it’s recycled goods. The graphic novels are already second-hand art, since they are an homage to other forms. The movie thus is third-hand art: a full-circle film imitation of comic books imitating films. It’s impossible for the movie to say anything interesting with all that weight on its back, and it doesn’t. It’s somewhat possible in theory for it to be fun, but tries so hard to capture Rodriguez and Miller’s sense of “cool” and to jam all of these genres and familiar icons into the fold that it becomes labored. And 125 minutes of that is too much, but I’m sure plenty of thirteen year-old boys of all ages and genders would feel differently.

[Expanded a bit from a review posted in 2007. As noted, the film was extremely popular at the time — it seems like a lifetime ago — and I actually got some fairly testy emails about some comments above; asked to clarify some of my remarks, I went on a broad tangent about camera movements and angles and I still basically agree with it. You can read it here.]

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