Sin City Review

Note: This review contains some spoilers relevant to the plot

“For geeks, action freaks and sensation-seeking teenage boys of all ages, the price of admission will provide a one-way ticket to hard-boiled heaven, generating potent theatrical B.O. and even stronger returns in the home screen afterlife…”

So said Variety, and I’m inclined to agree. Sin City has set a new benchmark for cinematic noir (or ‘hyper-noir’, as it’s being dubbed), sparking fond memories of Hollywood’s golden age, while creating its own unique universe in the process. It has become somewhat of a phenomenon - a cult entity that has satisfied both newcomers and converts alike, with its breathless exuberance, and impressive cast; resulting in a healthy theatrical gross. It also impressed critics - a difficult group to seduce, with any kind of exploitation - who recognised its peculiar, blood-splattered charms. It was a rare triumph for comic obsessed youths, who have a new classic to embrace…

Bursting from the imagination of acclaimed graphic novelist Frank Miller (who, it must be said, has never had it so good), Sin City is a nightmarish twist on the hard-boiled detective stories popularised by Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. It was film noir on the page. He tells stories about anti-heroes and prostitutes with hearts of gold; who eke out their short-lives in Basin City - where there’s a strip bar on every corner, and the police force couldn’t care less. A big hit for independent publisher Dark Horse, Sin City has been popular with comic readers ever since it first appeared in 1991. While Stan Lee enjoyed telling light and breezy adventure yarns, Miller was more interested in tossing political-correctness aside, and indulging in his darker instincts. It was also the decade that saw Garth Ennis’ controversial Preacher hit the stands, but it was Miller who ruled the roost when it came to edgy, pulp material.

Naturally, it was a perfect world to represent on film. Miller had been approached by many filmmakers since his creation first appeared, and he turned all of them down. He wasn’t going to let a Hollywood hot-shot ruin his moralistic vision. But then Robert Rodriguez knocked on his door. The cult director promised Miller the most faithful adaptation ever - a film that used the graphic novels as a script, with each panel acting as his storyboard. Digital technology would also be employed. Few sets were constructed. Only cars and guns acted as props. Rodriguez used the comic book imagery, and nothing more. But that’s not all - Miller found himself calling the shots with Rodriguez on set. The result is one of the most intoxicating and full-blooded films in recent memory...

There’s a thousand stories in the naked city, and Sin City tells three of them; separate narratives that barely intertwine. No wonder some people have called it “the new Pulp Fiction”. While both films share a portmanteau structure, and Tarantino’s involvement, Sin City is pretty far removed from that 1994 classic. First of all, there’s The Hard Goodbye (the novel of which, I reviewed here), in which gargantuan thug Marv (Mickey Rourke) hunts down the killer of prostitute Goldie (Jaime King) - who treated the brute to a night of passion. Ex-cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis) also has a score to settle. Years ago, he vowed to protect Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) from the hands of demonic paedophile Roark Jr. (Nick Stahl), in That Yellow Bastard. Now he’s back to finish him off; a job that takes him to the top of Basin City’s twisted hierarchy. And there’s Dwight (Clive Owen) in The Big Fat Kill, a man who spends his nights defending the women of Old Town from the rotten police force.

In a year that has seen several big-budget comic book adaptations, Sin City stands tall as the most faithful. It’s what you’d expect from self-proclaimed “maverick” Rodriguez – dark, pulpy, ultra-violent and exploding with excess. It isn’t just an adaptation. It’s a translation – a cinematic version of the graphic novels, which sacrifices little of the source material. No wonder Miller devotees loved it. They couldn’t have asked for a better movie. While the stories and characters have a great deal of gravitas – for noir fans, at least – Sin City’s main asset is “the look”. It’s been talked about no end, but it deserves to be discussed around the office water cooler for one reason…it pushes filmmaking forwards. Of course, it isn’t the first time a filmmaker has injected actors into an animated backdrop; the sadly underrated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow did it effectively, and so did the recent foreign film Immortal (ad vitam). But the technique reaches its zenith in Sin City

Using high-definition digital cameras with digital environments and digital effects, it’s another reason to leave celluloid behind – the computer realm makes it possible to do just about anything, and at half the cost of a shot-on-film production. Sin City was a bargain at $45 million (around £24m); making the larger-scale films look decidedly small by comparison. Combining Rodriguez’s control-freak tendencies (he co-directs, helps with the score, as well as shooting and cutting the film), with Miller’s lurid tales provides a truly different experience. We’ve never seen anything quite like this, and the photography is beautiful. As a critic, I hate to use overblown hyperbole, but Sin City really does have awe-inspiring visuals. There isn’t an ugly frame in the entire movie – even shots of hardened violence have a poetic grace. It’s difficult not to get sucked-in.

The Maverick’s desire to grapple Miller’s work has been a career-long goal. “I’ve been buying Sin City since 1992, and I always wanted to do a film noir,” Rodriguez stated. “After doing the Spy Kids movies and worrying so much about lighting and technology, I realised I could make this movie now. It was visual storytelling that worked so well on the page...I thought it would work exactly the same way on the screen.” After convincing Miller to sign away the rights (by shooting a scene from the source material), Rodriguez once again joined forces with Dimension Films; a genre division of Miramax that isn’t known for its originality. Surprisingly, the studio were interested in the material, and Rodriguez started work at his own Troublemaker Studios (in other words, at his home in Texas). Despite the tight budget, Rodriguez was prepared, and he’s never been one to let limited funds ruin his vision…

The opening scene, or prologue, establishes the comic book aesthetic to resounding effect. Taken from the short tale The Customer is Always Right, it introduces “The Salesman” (Josh Hartnett) and an unnamed blonde (Mary Shelton), which begins on a sombre note, but leads into the credits with a stinging urgency; perfectly summing-up Basin City in a clutch of tragic images. It’s a grim place, inhabited by people without remorse. The scene lets us know that we shouldn’t trust these characters, veiling them in secrecy. Appearances can be deceptive, like Rodriguez’s pixel-perfect footage. The black and white of classic noir is mixed with splashes of intoxicating colour, which clashes with the gritty, foreboding world Miller has created. But it works, creating the same sense of wonder I faced when viewing Pleasantville, which also blended monochrome with colourful outbursts. In most respects, Rodriguez has convinced me that digital photography is the way forward. The good points far outweigh the bad…

Of course, such excess forms a barrier between the audience and the film – never once do we treat the picture seriously, meaning that an emotional attachment to the characters is missing. It’s a ride that speeds a mile-a-minute, but it never moves. Basin City is over-populated with scum, and the “honest” citizens are either killed horribly, or sacrificed for the greater good. Which is probably why Miller’s drawings caused such a stir. They were pitch-black morality tales, designed to cause a response, and like the work of Bret Easton Ellis, we respect few of the characters in this universe, but follow them nevertheless. But faults like this don’t matter in Sin City - it was intended as visceral, jarring entertainment and it succeeds 100%. Some will lament the absence of clean-cut role models, but the characters snare our attention, regardless.

The film also peaks early, during The Hard Goodbye; resurrecting Rourke’s career with his now-iconic performance. He’s truly the perfect fit for Marv - if any of the cast members have embodied their character completely, it’s him. I even went back to read the novel after seeing the film, and was surprised at how well he brought the maniac to life. Under a ton of prosthetics, Rourke possesses the screen throughout his story, which is easily the best in the film. It’s also the darkest in terms of humour, which was lost on some viewers, who were repulsed by Marv’s twisted nature. He’s a roaring rampage of revenge (aren’t they all?), who will stop at nothing to avenge the death of Goldie. That means a high body-count, as he dispenses with hit-men, low-lives and Basin City’s top-hombres. And it’s the way he despatches his foes that really gets the pulse racing (but more on that later).

The Hard Goodbye is exciting and rather relentless - Marv is an unpredictable juggernaut, and like most of Sin City's characters, he attains anti-hero status. He’s clearly insane; needing pills to treat his “condition”, which are given to him by his lesbian parole officer, Lucille (the stunning Carla Gugino; there to provide the obligatory nude shots). Therefore, we’re never sure if the events we’re seeing are actually happening, or if Marv is getting confused. He’s two steps away from becoming a grade-A psychopath, but he still possesses his own morals - he’ll only kill someone if they deserve it, and he treats women with respect.

Giving the chapter a hint of horror, is the wonderfully cast-against-type Elijah Wood – brilliant as the silent cannibal, and killing machine Kevin. He’s probably the most haunting psychopath in Basin City’s gallery of rogues; evil, fierce and without remorse. After Marv confronts him at a farm on the outskirts of town, he soon discovers Kevin’s nefarious operation – the kidnapping and butchering of prostitutes to eat; signaled by the severed heads of his victims on a cell wall. Simply put, Kevin is just gosh-darn creepy, with glasses that white-out his eyes, and a disturbingly-blank expression. Naturally, he gets his comeuppance when Marv gains the upper-hand. And it’s the first interval in which the violence gets really nasty – with Rourke’s character going to work on foes with axes, saws and razor-wire. The blood flows like fine wine (often in streams of white, or sometimes in its natural colour), and the ending is rather fitting, considering the tone of the tale; with Marv receiving a punishment he’d be the first to admit he deserves. His exit from the film leaves a vacuum that is largely unfilled, but Sin City chugs along expertly until the closing credits. There’s still fun to be had.

The Big Fat Kill ups-the-ante in terms of on-screen spectacle. It doesn’t pack the same wallop as the preceding story, but the action pumps rhythmically (and benefits from some gallows humour). Most of it takes place on the streets of Old Town, where the prostitutes rule – they’ve set their own laws, and pack quite an arsenal. Entering the fray is Dwight (played with the right rugged demeanor by Owen), a murderer on the run who has to protect Old Town from the deranged Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro); a drunken cop on the wrong side of the law. Naturally, everything goes belly-up, igniting a turf war between the hookers and the Basin City authorities. The chapter revels in poking fun at the grotesque material - the supposedly dead Jackie Boy continues to “live on” with a pistol embedded in his forehead - but it’s so exciting, the ridiculousness of the scenario never spoils the ride. After all, by now, the audience has been so desensitized by the violence; we don’t question the “reality” of this world any more. We’re perfectly content to let the characters have their way.

For some reason, Dwight’s tale is the most heavily-criticised in the film, despite its polished set-pieces. Most of the comments I can understand, especially the treatment of women in the film. The prostitutes strut about in very little at all, especially Gale (Rosario Dawson); providing more eye candy than some red-blooded males could handle. Some have said it’s a very exploitative view of women – lest we forget the profession of these characters – but none of them are depicted as weak in any way. They stand up for their values, and are fully-prepared to knock seven bells of crap out of anyone standing in their way. That’s nothing new, but at least Miller shows respect for them; even if the stories come from the minds of their male protagonists. But does the representation of women on film, really need to be discussed in a review of Sin City? When I think about The Big Fat Kill, I think about the blood-thirsty attack on Jackie Boy and his cronies (perpetrated by Devon Aoki’s “deadly little Miho”), in which limbs fly, and arterial spray, urr, sprays. Or the extravagant conclusion, in which an alleyway of seedy criminals are mowed down by a barrage of machine-gun fire. It’s certainly the most OTT vignette in the film, and like the others, won’t be easily forgotten.

It also provides Quentin Tarantino the chance to put his “Special Guest Director” tag to good use. In my opinion, giving the auteur such a title is baloney – a cheap marketing tool to entice more viewers to the film. As many of you will already know, his involvement amounts to one scene, in which Dwight escorts Jackie Boy’s body to the pits. It’s a fun excursion into the surreal, as Dwight imagines the very-dead JB is talking to him. It’s well-helmed by Tarantino, but it blends seamlessly into the picture as a whole. You’d be hard-pushed to guess which scene is his, if you didn’t already know. But it’s probably the cast who make this segment shine. Owen is the very definition of cool as Dwight; a calculating and graceful killer, who doesn’t opt for the noisy approach adopted by Marv. Also good is Del Toro, at his sleazy best. He gives Jackie Boy a repugnant streak, but unlike some of the larger-than-life characters here, he’s probably the closest to reality – a loser in search of a “good time”, no matter who he hurts in the process. This all leads to a loud conclusion, that just about satisfies.

Much of the emotion is left for the last act, and That Yellow Bastard works best as a melodrama; albeit one smothered in noir conventions. Willis’ cop Hartigan is typical of the genre – a world-weary type with “a bum ticker”, who makes it his mission in life to stop the evil Roark Jr. (Stahl). The latter was about to molest poor Nancy (Mackenzie Vega, in the early scenes), before Hartigan arrived on the scene; blowing off the creep’s nuts in the process. Unfortunately, Junior’s dad is a senator, and Hartigan is thrown in jail. Not only that, he’s framed for raping Nancy and the deaths of countless others. 8 years pass, and as you’d expect, Hartigan still holds a grudge. Out of jail, he vows to protect the grown-up Nancy (Alba), from Junior once again; who is now a disfigured and yellow-skinned freak…

The violence reaches its peak here, and I can’t remember the last time a screen legend tore off someone’s genitals. Neither can you? I think we saw it here first. Willis seems to take such grand guignol theatrics in his stride, and he’s got the perfect face for noir, not to mention the character. He’s an old-hand when it comes to cop roles, but he brings enough tortured humanity to Hartigan to make him different to John McClane. His performance is nicely-controlled, and he has excellent chemistry with Alba, whose dancing is some of the sexiest I’ve seen (second only to Salma Hayek’s snake routine in Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn). Alba isn’t a great actress, but she fits Nancy like a glove. Yet, in my opinion, they are both overshadowed by Stahl, who takes great relish in portraying the fiend of the title. He’s so evil; you can’t wait to see him buy it.

Compared to Dwight’s chapter, the finale is much stronger visually. That Yellow Bastard boasts the best imagery in the film. It depicts Basin City during a snow-storm, which only helps to make the film look even more remarkable - especially that startling shot of Hartigan perched against a tree, as the snow falls around him; his trench coat billowing in the wind. Those white backgrounds also help to make Junior’s bile-coloured skin standout even more. But the tale really compels for one simple reason – Hartigan is the only “decent” character in Miller’s universe. He’s a self-sacrificing man, and the city’s last good cop. He did his time in the hope that Nancy would survive, and now he’s prepared to give up his life to ensure her survival. It also highlights the common thread between the three main characters – they’re descendents of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe – “knights” trying to rescue damsels in distress. Dwight thought that Marv would be best suited on an ancient battlefield; Gale refers to Dwight as Lancelot, and Hartigan compares himself to Galahad, when charging into the lion’s den. Miller is giving his characters a mythic status, and while all of them are very different, they all possess the same drive and desires. They’re also suckers for women – there’s some interesting sub-text to be found there…

With a truly electric supporting cast, including Rutger Hauer, Brittany Murphy, Micheal Clarke Duncan and Powers Booth; Sin City never fails to entertain. However, I’d be lying if I said it was a perfect brew – no matter how much I’d like to say so. At 124-minutes, it’s probably too long for some audiences, making it a perfect film for video (even I thought it lasted too long at the cinema). I also feel that the score by Rodriguez, John Debney and Graeme Revell is too generic for its own good, with the exception of the atmospheric title theme. But these problems never once affected my enjoyment. Sin City is a fascinating film, regardless. It’s pure cinema, and is astonishing as a technical achievement. What Rodriguez and Miller have achieved is something to savour – a piece of pulp cinematic art, that certainly deserves the fan-boy praise. As an adaptation, it’s flawless. Read the graphic novels, and you’ll be shocked at how close the two mediums are. As a coherent motion picture, it’s not without fault, but it’s still a masterpiece. It’s an invigorating slice of exploitation, that has won me over completely.

Never has sinning felt so good…

The Disc

We didn’t have to wait long for Sin City to appear on shiny disc, which makes myself and the geek community profoundly happy. But the speediness of this release has made a full-blown “Special Edition” out of the question…for the time being, at least.

Where’s the Rodriguez/Miller commentary? What about those deleted scenes? Where’s the “10-Minute Fucking School” I hear you cry?!

The filmmakers assure us these goodies are on the way, so we’ll have to make do with Buena Vista's barebones effort, for now. Eager fans also get a choice of which cover they purchase; each boasting different members of the cast. I went with Mickey Rourke (I’ll get my Alba fix elsewhere). While this is merely a sample of what’s to come, it’s an edition worth getting for devotees, thanks to a stellar presentation.

The Look and Sound

Basin City may be the dirtiest place Hell ever spat out, but it sure looks beautiful. The distributor realises that Sin City is nothing without its visuals, and has provided a pretty outstanding anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer, to show off that gorgeous photography. As you’d expect from a digital source, the picture is first-rate throughout. Those all important blacks are rock-solid, and the splashes of colour stand-out with a pleasing vibrancy. Detail is very impressive too, with the HD camerawork really allowing you to savour the experience. I’ve read several other reviews that highlight flaws in this transfer, concerning shadow delineation and instances of haloing. Truth be told, this is nit-picking. As far as DVD’s go, you can’t get better quality, really. This transfer surpasses some Superbit titles, and is very satisfying…

While it isn’t the best this film could look, it’s a perfect DVD.

Which brings me onto the prospect of a future hi-def release of the film. Sin City is a shoe-in for the upcoming Blu-ray format, since the film was captured at a 1920x1080 pixel size - the optimum capacity for Blu-ray discs. This means, of course, that the film will look even better when it makes the leap to HD; with no additional tinkering needed. As for this DVD, I doubt fans of the film will be disappointed. It’s a wonderful presentation on Buena Vista’s part.

The audio doesn’t slouch either, with fantastic Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS mixes. Each of these has a ton of atmosphere and ambience, while the film's dialogue is crystal clear. The voice-overs reveal plenty of deep bass-action, especially Mickey Rourke’s chalkboard vocals. Action scenes are also very expressive, with loud explosions and bullets that zing across the sound field. If there is something to complain about, it’s the score, which gets pushed to the back of the action for much of the run-time. That however, was probably a creative decision, and no fault of the transfer. Ultimately, Sin City makes great use of your home theatre…

You’ll also find a 5.1 track in French, with English and Spanish subtitles.

The Menus

These are brilliant. Incorporating Miller’s original artwork, the film footage morphs into the original comic book panels, with full-blown animation and music (“Cells” by British band The Servant, which was made famous by those memorable trailers). In fact, they’re so cool, one wonders how the SE’s menus will top them!

Bonus Material

Yes, it’s disappointing to see so little here, but it’s not entirely barebones. We get a brief 9-minute “making of”, which features interview footage with Miller, Rodriguez, Tarantino, Rourke, Alba and Willis, among others. There’s some snippets of behind-the-scenes footage, but this is largely promotional hoo-hah.

The disc loads with several trailers, including Unleashed and Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior. In most respects, I can’t wait for the “Special Edition”.

The Bottom Line

"Walk down the right back-alley in Sin City, and you can find anything..."

Except DVD extras! You will, however, get the greatest comic book adaptation to date - in my opinion, at least. The transfer is top-notch, treating Sin City's spectacular look to an ultra-clean digital makeover, which certainly does it justice. With no SE announced yet, major fans of the film will find it hard to resist, and I recommend a viewing to any Basin City virgins.

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out of 10

Last updated: 19/04/2018 08:00:26

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