Legendary graphic novelist Frank Miller’s Sin City series is pulpy noir on steroids, amplified black-and-white visions of seedy, nightmarish urbanity in which dangerous men consume only steaks and brews, women are either angelic “babes” or tough “dames,” and cops, clergymen, and politicians hungrily wallow in the corrupt mire. His gritty books are at once stringently faithful to, and exaggerated augmentations of, their gloomy genre’s most hallowed tropes: a stark combination of clichéd staccato dialogue, severely sharp shadows, and swift, ferocious violence shot up with a dose of adrenalized nastiness. Yet Miller’s cynicism is tempered by hope, his leggy female characters stronger and more resilient than their skimpy outfits let on, and his hulking he-men more sensitive and vulnerable than their brawny exteriors would suggest. Fashioned from superhero lore and Dashiell Hammett, the writer’s antiheros—part Superman and part Phillip Marlowe—are both noble and flawed, gallantly trying to effect change against a cruel, inequitable social order. As in Miller’s portrait of Batman in 1986’s groundbreaking The Dark Night Returns, these men are sometimes profane, often vicious, completely cynical, and intimately aware that the surest (and likely only) route to redemption is through pain, suffering, and sacrifice.
Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (co-directed by Miller himself) translates three of these acclaimed novels (The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill, and That Yellow Bastard) verbatim, using cutting-edge digital technology and a star-studded cast decked out in racy outfits and outrageous prosthetics to precisely recreate Miller’s illustrations and prose as they appear on the page. Miller’s books function not as jumping-off points but as blueprints (or storyboards) for the film’s trio of rain-drenched, blood-soaked tales, and the result is that his trademark close-ups (in which only harried eyes are illuminated by swathes of light), sultry, writhing femme fatales (commonly sans clothing), and white silhouettes against jet-black backgrounds are exactingly transposed on screen. Such dogged accuracy, when coupled with the film’s gorgeously artificial, wholly computer-concocted landscapes, is disorienting at first, and those not receptive to extreme cinematic stylization and self-consciousness may bristle at this adaptation’s blatant disinterest in realism. Yet any fanboy with an affinity for noir or Miller’s acerbic work will savor its reimagining of hard-boiled ’40s-era crime fiction as a brutal and caustically funny gonzo netherworld of (to reference another Sin City tome) booze, broads, and bullets.
Each of Sin City’s male protagonists embarks upon a homicidal, potentially fatal quest to rescue, defend, or avenge the death of a good woman, guided by a principle of loyalty articulated by Clive Owen’s ex-con Dwight: “You gotta stand up for your friends. Sometimes that means dying. Sometimes it means killing a whole lotta people.” Marv, a grizzled behemoth embodied underneath a ton of facial make-up by the incomparable Mickey Rourke, is a bruiser seeking revenge against the powerful men—ultimately revealed to be cannibalistic clergymen (Rutger Hauer and Elijah Wood) with a taste for whores—responsible for the death of a beatific, golden-haired hooker named Goldie (Jaime King) who had generously given Marv the night of his life. Marv’s vengeful adventure is mirrored by that of Hartigan (Bruce Willis), a last-day-before-retirement cop (stamped with a telling forehead scar of a sidewise cross) who can’t succumb to his debilitating angina until he’s sacrificially saved the kidnapped Nancy Callahan (Makenzie Vega as a child; Jessica Alba as a foxy lasso-swinging stripper adult) from the clutches of the deformed pedophilic freak Yellow Bastard (Nick Stahl). And in the film’s most thematically thin segment, Dwight must help the sexy, weapons-wielding hookers of Old Town, including his bondage-favoring former flame Gail (Rosario Dawson), defeat the mob after the girls mistakenly murder a renegade cop (Benicio del Toro’s Jackie Boy) for getting too fresh with the sidewalk merchandise.
Framed by beautiful but somewhat mundane vignettes featuring Josh Hartnett’s assassin The Salesman, these intertwining narratives form an exhilarating—if bordering on campily overwrought—tapestry of valor, selfishness, deceitfulness, and martyrdom. The myriad scratches (all under bright white bandages) that slash Marv’s mug reflect their pill-popping owner’s scarred psyche, just as Hartigan’s crucifix-branded brow speaks to his altruism, and both men (as well as Owen’s more nondescript Dwight) are regularly confronted by a world in which sexual violence is the sadism of choice, and castration—either via knife, gun or hands (“mitts” as Marv’s calls them)—is the preferred remedy. “It really gets my goat when guys rough up dames,” Marv softly tells Nancy, but it’s not only men punishing malicious female abusers; in the old Madonna/whore tradition, those women not depicted as innocent saints (Goldie, Nancy) are presented as voluptuous, sexually empowered hellcats (Gail, Devon Aoki’s ninja Miho, Carla Gugino’s “dyke” Lucille, Brittany Murphy’s saucy bar waitress Shellie) happy to deliver justice from their ludicrously phallic firearms. Though the film’s narration-heavy dialogue can sometimes veer into parody—such as when Dwight breathily murmurs about his passion for Gail, “There’s no place in the world for this kind of fire”—Miller and Rodriguez’s phantasmagoric fantasy about society’s ulcerating underbelly deliciously conflates sex and torment, retribution and remorse, sin and salvation.
The directing duo—along with Quentin Tarantino, who guest-helms an amusingly surreal scene between Dwight and a throat-slit Jackie Boy—drench the strikingly monochromatic Sin City in inky blacks, icy whites, and polished-steel grays that are occasionally punctuated with flashes of brilliant color (Blondie and Marv’s crimson heart-shaped bed, Yellow Bastard’s putrid skin and blood, Jackie Boy’s baby blue Cadillac). Their dazzling mise-en-scène (set to Rodriguez, John Debney and Graeme Revell’s score of brassy horns and buzzing techno) is brimming with expressionistically askew angles and cinematographic acrobatics, and though their blocking sporadically falters—the film’s conventional medium shots are frequently a letdown, exposing the latent awkwardness of their special effects-aided technique—there’s no shortage of stunningly mannered imagery, from speeding cars leaping over hills at breakneck speeds to the implacable Marv fiendishly grinning through hiccups of blood while being fried to death in the electric chair. If, however, Sin City’s construction is wholly self-aware, its deliberately affected performances (highlighted by Murphy’s acid-tongued turn as the saucy Shellie) wisely forgo winks to their own outlandishness. And in the rampaging Marv, Rourke finds the ideal vehicle for his unique brand of slow-burn, coiled-snake insanity, finally achieving a kind of maniacal madman majesty when—in response to whether killing Hauer’s diabolical priest will satisfy him—the torture-loving brute mordantly retorts, “The killing? No. But everything up until that’ll be a gas.”