Sin City Review
Caution: this review contains major spoilers throughout. If you have not yet seen the film, I advise you to skip down to the technical section.
I should probably preface this review by saying that the film of Sin City was my first (and to date only) excursion into the work of Frank Miller. I dived into Miller and Robert Rodriguez's big-screen adaptation without any idea of what to expect, beyond having seen some moody promotional photographs and the early teaser trailer, which featured the film's first scene and a handful of additional clips. Naturally, therefore, I have no idea whether my enjoyment would have been increased had I read the source material, or indeed whether it would have spoiled the fun. As such I cannot claim to be any sort of expert on this bleak, macabre world (comics tend not to be my thing, and less still comic book to film adaptations): these are nothing more than the rambling opinions of someone who saw the film blind and had a blast.
Basin ("Sin") City is home to every vice known to man. This is a town where there is no such thing as an uncorrupted official, clergymen are cannibals, child molesters get off scot-free due to family ties, and the city's last honest cop, with only an hour to go before her retires, is shot in the back by his own partner. In Sin City, you can only survive by being completely ruthless and acting in the interests of no-one but yourself. In the rain-drenched streets, where the only time of day is a perpetual midnight, you can be gunned down and run over, and nobody will bat an eyelid.
One city. Three stories.
The Hard Goodbye is the story of Marv (Mickey Rourke), who wakes up to find Goldie (Jaime King), a prostitute and the only woman who ever showed him any kindness, lying dead beside him. Framed for her murder and that of several other hookers, Marv goes undercover to unearth the corruption that extends from the clergy to the police force, using the only form of reasoning known to him: brutal violence. The Big Fat Kill, meanwhile, introduces us to Dwight (Clive Owen), a murderer with a conscience, who tails Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro), a corrupt cop, into Old Town, a part of the city policed by the local prostitutes. When Jackie Boy meets his demise, Dwight teams up with an old flame, Gail (Rosario Dawson), to do everything in his power to prevent the prostitutes' way of life being destroyed in the inevitable reprisals. Finally, That Yellow Bastard follows the tale of Hartigan (Bruce Willis), a wrongly disgraced detective who sets out to protect a young woman, Nancy (Jessica Alba), from the same sadistic paedophile (Nick Stahl) who menaced her as a child.
If nothing else, Sin City certainly looks phenomenal. Shot digitally and comprised largely of actors shot against green-screen and then composited on to backdrops via computer (in much the same manner as last year's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), the film has a look that belies its $45 million budget - a pittance in Hollywood terms, and moreso given the film's scale and scope. Predominantly taking place in black and white, which corresponds both to the original comics and its film noir roots, every shot is beautifully composed and there are more iconic moments than any other film I can think of this year. Rodriguez, who not only co-directed the film but also photographed and edited it, injects occasional elements of striking colour - a splash of bright red blood here, a bright blue eye there, and, as the most extreme example, the skin of the appropriately named Yellow Bastard - in much the same way that Spielberg used the girl in the red coat in Schindler's List. Both films use colour as a gimmick, the difference being that, with Schindler's List, it always felt to me as if Spielberg shot the film in black and white purely so he could use colour for one iconic character, whereas in Sin City, the use of colour comes across as a neat stylistic touch rather than a crutch.
The question remains to be asked, though: is Sin City misogynistic? It's a tricky question, and one that is not made any easier by the fact that the entire female cast is presented to be oogled at by male eyes, and that the film takes great delight in placing them in perilous situations, but ultimately, I don't believe that this is misogyny in the truest sense of the word (i.e. the hatred of women). One gets the impression that Miller has a definite level of respect for the prostitutes of Old Town, who take the notion of using sex as a weapon to its zenith and whose autonomous method of running their area is far more effective than it would be if they were governed by any man. It's difficult to argue against the notion that the various scantily-clad (and unclad) women are being presented so that horny men can salivate over them, but even so, Miller and Rodriguez seem to be commenting on the folly of the male gaze just as much as they are using these images to titillate (after all, how many men in this film meet their demise because they underestimated their female adversaries?). As MaryAnn Johanson pointed out in her review, when Marv says that he can't understand why Lucille is a dyke, when she can "have any man she wants", it is he who is being ignorant, not Miller. (Incidentally, Johanson's review also points out what many of the film's viewers and critics alike have failed to grasp: that the world of Sin City is really not a million miles away from our own.)
It's difficult to argue against the claim that there is a fetishistic aspect to the various "women in peril" scenarios (not least when Nancy is tied up and whipped by Yellow Bastard in the third tale), but ultimately I would say that this is cushioned somewhat by the theory that this is little more than a play on the traditional "damsel in distress" scenario. The difference being that there are no knights in shining armour: the men of this world are largely completely despicable, and the fact that the heroes of the piece, possibly barring Hartigan, are cold-blooded thugs or mass murderers, speaks volumes about the average male stock of Sin City. In contrast, the women are portrayed in a considerably more favourable light, with almost all of them having a far stronger code of honour than their male counterparts and only one being genuinely duplicitous (and the motive given to her shows that, however much damage might result from her actions, her heart is in the right place). There are all sorts of women in Sin City: strong women, weak women, innocent women, guilty women... some are all four.
A melange of well-known faces make up the ensemble cast, some recognizable and some not. As the male protagonists of their three respective stories, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen and Bruce Willis suck up the lion's share of the screen time. Of this trio, Rourke gives the best performance and Owen is almost certainly the weakest link (I've never been a fan), but Willis is graced with the most interesting and sympathetic character - the last uncorrupted cop in the city - and he injects more pathos into his performance than any other member of the cast. One of the best performances, however, comes from Alexis Bledel. She doesn't get to be a swashbuckling heroine or a cold-blooded assassin, but as one of the few genuinely "shades of grey" characters, she gives a genuinely subtle and layered performance, and one that makes a certain reprehensible act that she commits at one point seem understandable. Miller and Rodriguez even manage to coax decent performances out of Jessica Alba and Elijah Wood... although at the other end of the spectrum, Brittany Murphy just seems lost, and Josh Harnett, who appears in the opening and closing scenes, seems to be operating in cruise mode. Admittedly, neither get much to do, but compared with the stellar performance put in by some cast members, it really does feel as if they walked on to the wrong movie set.
Besides a handful of dodgy performances, the film definitely has its fair share of flaws, not least the fact that the three stories don't really connect in any meaningful way. Some might argue that this is in itself not an issue, and that the film works fine when viewed as a compilation of short stories. That would be all well and good were it not for the fact that, here and there, some half-hearted attempts are made to create links between the different stories. For instance, we see Marv briefly in That Yellow Bastard, and likewise Nancy shows up in a couple of scenes in The Big Fat Kill. Personally, I found these instances a bit jarring, because I couldn't shake off the feeling that Miller and Rodriguez were trying to do what was achieved with much greater success in Pulp Fiction and Go, only to chicken out instead of actually following it through. Chronologically, there is no real sense to it, as Hartigan's story takes place in the "past", and yet bookends the other two stories, which take place in the "present". It fails to achieve anything and feels more like an excuse to simply cram in as many different storylines and characters as possible.
Additionally, impressive as the film's visual effects and Rodriguez's technique of compositing are, there are times when the limitations of filming the actors separate from their backdrops and even co-stars become all too evident. Although much of the time he and his performers do a remarkable job of creating an illusion of unity, on some occasions it is simply impossible to believe that the characters are interacting with each other or their surroundings (shades of the new Star Wars trilogy). A fine example of this can be seen in The Big Fat Kill, where Becky uses a callbox and has an exchange with two other hookers: not only does it not look as if she is really in the callbox, it is blatantly obvious that she, the two prostitues and the callbox itself have all been pasted on to the background. I might also add that the film's atmosphere is more or less one-note: the two directors certainly nail the bleak mood perfectly, but they never really expand on it or take it in different directions. True, we get the odd flash of gallows humour here and there, but after two hours I was left with the distinct impression that the film was simply treading the same ground and not really heading anywhere. It seems a shame to poke so many holes in what really is an extremely well-made film, but ultimately I don't feel that it is the masterpiece many consider it to be.
Sin City is an old-fashioned tale of morality, but one in which the values of honesty and purity cannot triumpth in the face of duplicity and corruption. It speaks volumes about the world these characters inhabit that, ultimately, the only way Hartigan can ensure Nancy's safety is through his own death. As both a comic book adaptation and a modern attempt to evoke the film noir atmosphere, it is definitely at the top of its game, and includes many stand-out scenes and performances that are among the best that 2005 has had to offer so far. It has its faults, true, and I suspect that many of the criticisms levelled against it are valid up to a point, but I enjoyed it almost as much, watching it for the second time on DVD, as I did when I first saw it on the big screen. It's the old days, the bad days, the all-or-nothing days. Sin City is a great technical achievement and a great movie.
Sin City is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. Taken straight from the digital source, this is a very good transfer - almost a perfect one - but is let down by a hint of edge enhancement and some brick-wall filtering. It looks detailed, don't get me wrong, but it's missing that extra sheen of crispness that was visible in the cinema presentations. It's certainly a massive step up from the interlaced, artefact-ridden Hong Kong release that a lot of people (including myself) initially bought into (because it came with a Sin City notebook, natch). One could make the case that the crisp, clean, digital look of this transfer doesn't suit the deliberately rough, hard-edged world of Basin City, but obviously that's a matter of personal preference. I did find the theatrical presentation I saw back in July, which naturally used a 35mm print, more aesthetically pleasing, however.
The UK release loses the DTS track that was included on the US and Hong Kong releases in order to make way for an Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and an English Audio Descriptive track, but the loss is not unforgiveable, as the English Dolby track sounds excellent, with deep bass and a bountiful array of split-channel effects. Some people have pointed out that the dialogue at times has a somewhat scratchy quality to it, and this is something that I definitely noticed when I was actively listening to it. Bear in mind, however, that this was also present in the theatrical presentation I saw, which would suggest that the problem is with the source material itself rather than the DVD. Subtitles are included in English and Italian.
By the way, I urge you to check out the Audio Descriptive track. There's something genuinely amusing about the gravelly drawling of the film's cast constantly being interrupted by the extremely precise enunciation of an English lady.
With the news that a fully loaded 2-disc special edition of Sin City is coming out in just a few months, it almost seems pointless to even mention the pitiful offering on display here. All we get is a 9-minute Behind the Scenes featurette, which shows a bunch of peeps, including Rodriguez, Miller, guest director Quentin Tarantino, and a handful of cast members, discussing how great the film is. To be fair, it does attempt to go into slightly more depth than your average EPK piece, showing some tantalising glimpses of the shooting process (expect much in the way of green-screen action), but it's pretty obvious that this was never intended to be anything other than a bare-bones stop-gap to tide people over between the theatrical release and the bona fide special edition. There isn't even a theatrical trailer, something that I would consider to be the absolute minimum requirement in terms of extras for a DVD release.
The featurette is subtitled in Italian, but not English.
If simply seeing the film with the best possible sound and image quality is what you're looking for, you should be more than happy with this release of Sin City. Those who want something a little more in-depth in terms of bonus features than an 8-minute EPK, however, are advised to hold out for the upcoming special edition, which includes both the theatrical cut and an extended version of the film, as well as a host of extras.