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A groundbreaking achievement

By Lady Liberty
web posted April 4, 2005

Sin City

** out of ****

Sin CityIt seems that recent years have seen a number of comic books translated to the big screen. Some were terrific movies garnering a box office and critical bonanza (Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, and Hellboy among them); others weren't so successful (Daredevil, Elektra). But all of the movies to date have something in common, and that is an attempt to bring story to life in the theatre. Whether you think Sin City belongs in the former or the latter category, there can be no debate that it belongs in a place all its own when it comes to the actual making of the movie itself. Sin City, rather than trying to bring a story to life, instead brings the comic book pages themselves to life in the theatre. The result is nothing less than astounding.

Sin City is the subject of a series of graphic novels by Frank Miller (in what may or may not be a bad sign, Miller is also the creative force behind the Daredevil and Elektra comic, though to be fair, he had far less involvement in those films than he does in this one which he actually co-directs). Three of these dark stories are combined to comprise the movie Sin City.

In a series of vignettes, we meet Hartigan (Bruce Willis), a Basin City cop who intends to do his best until the very moment of his pending retirement, and Nancy (Jessica Alba), a stripper who finds great love and suffers great loss as a result of Hartigan's actions. The movie then focuses on Marv (Mickey Rourke), whose terrifying looks and great strength make virtually everyone afraid of him. The lone exception is Goldie (Jaime King) who offers Marv the one thing he can't steal: love. Both of these stories have peripheral connections to a third which finds us in the rough and tumble Old Town section of Basin City, ruled with no mercy by a band of ladies of the evening.

The women are led by "warrior woman" Gail (Rosario Dawson), and their efforts to minimize violence and lawbreaking on their turf is an ongoing success. But then Shellie (Brittany Murphy), a waitress in a local bar, falls for a handsome private investigator (Dwight, played by Clive Owen). When her jealous ex Jackie Boy (Benicio del Toro) learns she's been seeing someone else, he brings more than a little trouble to the neighborhood. But Gail and her chief enforcer, Miho (Devon Aoki), seem to have matters well in hand. Then a discovery is made concerning Jackie Boy, and all bets are off. Add a bad cop (Michael Clarke Duncan) and a terrified young prostitute (Becky, played by Alexis Bledel), and alliances quickly form to head off the war everyone believes is about to begin.

Meanwhile, Marv must deal with the mysterious and deadly Kevin (Elijah Wood) even as bizarre circumstances lead Hartigan to track down a man known only as Yellow Bastard (Nick Stahl). If that's not enough, a high-ranking church official (Rutger Hauer), whose power is such that he's even managed to make his brother a Senator (Powers Booth), is somehow also involved in various incidents that effect virtually everybody in Basin City. Needless to say, the politician brother also plays a sigifnicant role in some of the nastier incidences.

If the storyline sounds complicated, that's because it is. Oh, the individual plots are clear enough, but the interleaving of the three storylines means audiences must pay close attention. It also means that certain things near the beginning of the movie won't make complete sense until the end. But it worked for Pulp Fiction, and it works fairly well in Sin City as well. But the greatest achievement and the greatest flaw of Sin City are virtually identical: the movie resembles almost to a fault the graphic novels that serve as the foundation for the film.

The movie was filmed in color against a green screen. Digital effects stripped most of the color and darkened the scenes to a classic gritty film noir black and white, and then added incredibly realistic city and set backgrounds as required. With more than 1,800 special effects shots in a two hour film, that means that every minute brings an average of fifteen—and often more—effects to bear. To the filmmaker's credit, you won't even know you're seeing digital effects most of the time. And even when you do know, you probably won't care much given that the effects are superlative. The end result is almost as if Miller's pages have been pasted on the screen and suddenly begin moving for your entertainment and edification.

Unfortunately, comic book dialogue is typically narrative-heavy, and the movie takes that up, too, in both style and substance. While it's interesting and often entertaining, it's also not movie dialogue like we're used to hearing. Material written for the page is much different than that typically written for electronic media, so the script is often jarringly trite or disappointingly wooden. It's also not as comprehensive as words on a page can be, and so there are times when the action is more than a little confusing. The acting, however, is top notch—especially on the parts of Mickey Rourke and Benicio del Toro—and the direction is wonderfully managed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller (along with a scene guest-directed by creative filmmaking tour de force Quentin Tarantino). The bottom line is that, as frustrating as it can be when adaptations stray too far from their original source material, Sin City suffers for being entirely too faithful to the original where the script itself is concerned in both its often awkward dialoge and the two-dimensional plotlines.

If Sin City were any other movie, it would only be okay at best. But as the first of what could prove to be a whole new genre of film, it's beautifully rendered and represents creativity and computer capabilities at their highest levels. (Almost as amazing as the movie itself is the fact that it was produced in co-director Robert Rodriguez' garage.) If you like the Sin City graphic novels, you'll love this movie. Even if you don't, or are unfamiliar with them, Sin City is doubtless a film that will generate much discussion around the water cooler as well as in the offices of the powers that be in Hollywood. Love it or hate it, the groundbreaking terroritory of Sin City is all but required viewing for movie fans.

POLITICAL NOTES: It's interesting to note that, with a government and a police force that's almost completely corrupt, certain groups of people find they're entirely capable of enforcing the law and taking care of themselves. In fact, the cops aren't even welcome in some areas. The fact is that private enterprise is almost universally better than government at providing services of all kinds. That law enforcement might be one of those purposes is obvious; that it can be emminently successful even under the worst of circumstances is worth of serious consideration.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Sin City is rated R for "sustained strong stylized violence, nudity, and sexual content including langage." This ain't Spider-Man, Mom and Dad. Sin City is in no way suitable for kids under the age of 16. In fact, it's not suitable for anybody with a weak stomach or staid sensibilities. Even in black and white, some of the bloodier scenes are extraordinarily gruesome, and violence is prevalent throughout. But for genuine movie fans of all kinds, Sin City offers a glimpse of what is likely the future of cutting-edge movie-making; and for Sin City graphic novel fans, Sin City the movie offers a true-to-the-original big screen translation (due in no small part to Rodriguez' integrity and Miller's intimate involvement). I suspect this movie will end up garnering more attention for the way it was made than for any other reason. But I'm okay with that because, if ever a movie deserved that kind of attention, this one would be it.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.


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