Sunday, August 31, 2014

Movie Review: "Sin City" by David Pretty

Films like Bryan Singer's "X-Men" movies and Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" really captured the spirit of their original source material but it wasn't until the advent of 2005's "Sin City" when the visual style of the comic book was truly honored. Miller'... read more While Bryan Singer's X-Men and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man managed to capture some essence of their original source material it wasn't until Sin City in 2005 when the visual style comic books was properly honored. 

Inspired by film noir, E.C.-era pulp horror comics and Mickey Spillane-style detective fiction, Frank Miller's original series of graphic novels featured characters of opposing moral extremes moving inexorably towards an ultra-violent confrontation with one another. At the end of these little morality plays the bad guys usually get their comeuppance but our (anti) heroes often become the victim of cruel circumstance and are undone by what amounts to a modern Greek tragedy. 

As such, there isn't much in the way of subtlety in Sin City. Indeed, Miller's villains are more likely to be crazed pedophile cannibal rapists than someone who's "misguided". This, presumably, is to ensure that the audience will harbor no sympathy, moral ambiguity or conflict of conscience when the bad guys get their just deserts. Trust me, it's not a co-incidence that everything here is in black and white.

The first time I re-watched the film I chose to view the 142-minute "recut, unrated, extended" edition which separates each story into its own continuity. This time out I went back to the original theatrical presentation which I like a lot better since the shuffled plot reminds me a lot of Pulp Fiction

The first major tale, "That Yellow Bastard", features Bruce Willis as an avenging cop with the appropriately hard-boiled name of Hartigan. Ignoring the threats of career suicide (one day close to retirement, naturally!) he ventilates a creepy child molester (Nick Stahl) who just so happens to be the son of the powerful and unhinged Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). Hartigan is framed for "Junior's" vile crimes and thrown in prison for eight years. Despite their best efforts to torture a confession out of him, he remains resolute.

The girl he saved, "skinny little" Nancy Callahan, is grateful for his sacrifice, but Hartigan tells her to forget about him. He knows that Roark won't hesitate to rub them both out if it looks as if they're planning to expose "Junior's" bizarre proclivities. Contrary to Hartigan's orders, Nancy sends a letter to her incarcerated savior every week like clockwork, which keeps him from going off the deep end.

But when her letters suddenly dry up, Hartigan fears for the worst. In order earn a quick release from prison he confesses to all of Junior's vile crimes and then goes in search of Nancy (Jessica Alba), who's now a nineteen year old exotic dancer. To their horror, "Junior" also resurfaces, a twisted, jaundiced, maniacal wreck who seeks to punish the two for crossing him.

As you might expect, the final showdown between Hartigan and the titular "Bastard" is pretty freakin' brutal, peppered with Miller's trademark laconic dialogue, sadistic twists and (literally) black and white moralizing. The stark contrasting art that characterizes the original graphic novel is reproduced perfectly here using high definition digital cameras, green screen "back lots", monochromatic imagery and the strategic application of subtle color accents. 

The film is very reverent to Miller's original works. Clearly director Robert Rodriguez used panels directly from the comic as storyboards, a technique that Zak Snyder also used to tremendous effect in 300. Honestly, any film-maker could have produced a memorable and mind-altering piece of cinema if they'd only had the foresight to exploit this seemingly-simple but long-ignored resource. I'm not sure how much technical work Miller did on the film, but his co-directing credit is well-deserved, if only for the film's rich visual style.

Hartigan's segment bookends two other complete stories, leaving us mired in a niggling cliffhanger. The next major tale, "The Hard Goodbye", is notable for many reasons, not the least of which is Mickey Rourke's welcome return to the spotlight after a shamefully-long exile. If he hadn't been available to play "Marv", Rodriguez and Miller would have been forced to assemble an actor out of spare parts from Robert Mitchum, Anthony Quinn and Humphrey Bogart. 

Barely recognizable under a hatchet-face of scarred makeup, Rourke plays a character who, in ancient times would have been "right at home on some ancient battlefield swinging an axe into somebody's face...or in a Roman arena, taking his sword to other gladiators". Unfortunately, in modern times, Marv is little more then a broken-down goon with mental issues. 

After sharing a magical night with an impossibly-beautiful prostitute named Goldie (Jamie King), Marv wakes up to find her dead. Convinced that she was murdered, he goes on a homicidal quest to find out who killed this "angel", the one woman who ever showed him any affection. Driven by a relentless sense of purpose for the first time in his life, Marv uncovers evidence of church corruption, tangles with a silent, bookish-looking cannibal / assassin / serial killer (!) and then has one of the best "atonement" scenes in cinema history. 

Now, some might consider the third major segment, "The Big Fat Kill", to be the runt of the litter but I love it mainly because it features a completely bat-shit nuts Benicio Del Toro at his most uber-greasy. We also get an assertive performance by Michael Clarke Duncan as Manute, a sweet, vulnerable and greatly-missed Brittany Murphy as the embattled waitress Shellie and Rosario, Dawson as Gail, a "warrior woman" prostitute who's not to be trifled with. Lead protagonist Clive Owen manages to hold everything together with a nice smoldering performance, even if his American accent wears a bit thin at times.

At the very least, Sin City can't be accused of being milquetoast. Despite its limited color palette, the film is a full-blooded neo-noir romp that's proud to wear its time-honored cliche's on its blood-spattered sleeve. Although some may balk at the broad performances, stylized action sequences and dialogue best uttered through clenched teeth, this is a genuine cinematic love letter to a bonafide piece of comic book literature. 

      Tilt: up.

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