Thursday, March 17, 2005

Advance Movie Review: SIN CITY

So, I got to see one of the advance screenings of the Sin City movie last night, thanks to a free pass from the good Mr. James Sime at The Isotope Comic Book Lounge.

Man, I just enjoyed the hell out of that movie.

Let me get a few things out of the way - here’s what you’re gonna read everywhere: This is a ridiculously accurate translation of the comics to the screen, with the panels from the comics actually matching the visual shots of the film. It’s gritty and it’s stylized and it’s absolutely gorgeous, and any fan of the comics should be pleased with what they see.

I’m gonna get into minor spoilers here, but they’ll only spoil elements that already existed in the comics, so if you’ve read the original Sin City, as well as That Yellow Bastard and The Big Fat Kill, you won’t get any surprises ruined. And if you haven’t read those books, get on top of that right now – these are some of the best American comics ever made!

First of all, the actors in the three lead roles all do remarkable, note-perfect work. Mickey Rourke is great as Marv, and while his prosthetic chin looked kinda funny to me in the trailers, in the movie it works wonderfully. He really conjures the frantic, imbalanced anger and fear of the character, the way he moves, the way he talks, in a way I wasn’t expecting live-action acting to be able to capture. Bruce Willis holds it together nicely as Hartigan, and while I don’t quite buy him as a 68-year-old, he’s pretty comfortable with the Slightly Rundown, Good-Hearted Cop Willing To Bend The Law To Do The Right Thing. It’s pretty much exactly what you would expect from Willis playing this role – if you were expecting something new, you’ll be disappointed, but if you just want to see John McClane as an old man, you’ll be a pig in shit. I haven’t seen Clive Owen in anything else except The Bourne Supremacy, but he makes a mighty impression as Dwight.

The supporting roles are a big part of the fun of the comics, and several of them are great here, too. Remember the guy in The Big Fat Kill who got the arrow-message shot through his chest, and he stood there asking for help? He’s hysterical. Rosario Dawson does an incredible job as Gail, bringing that character to life with all the verve and sexiness and furious decisiveness the character needs. Miho is a character trope that often bores me (woo hoo, look at the tiny little Asian martial artist with the ninja stars), but Miller gave her some really fun presence in the comics and that’s brought to the screen with gutsy, silent perfection by Devon Aoki. Michael Clarke Duncan scares the shit out of me as the giant Manute, especially when he tells Gail about the coming bloodbath of Old Town and concludes, “Nothing can stop this.” And Schlubb and Klump perform their “delusions of eloquence” just as well as I’d hoped.

One of my favorites is Elijah Wood as Kevin, because now he’s supposed to be creepy. He always kinda gives me the willies anyway, and it’s nice to know that this time around, it’s intentional.

Not everybody is comfortable with the stylized material, though. Michael Madsen, coming off what I thought was his career-best performance in Kill Bill Volume 2, gives his career worst with an awkward, phoned-in performance as Hartigan’s partner. His scene opens the main story of the movie, which is unfortunate because it was so awful that even when it was over, I was on edge for the next twenty minutes, worried that it would get that bad again. Brittany Murphy gets way more screen time than she deserves, and while she’s at least trying where Madsen clearly didn’t give a shit, you can see her struggling to make it work pretty much every time she opens her mouth.

Speaking of which, there are a few sloppy elements here that really surprised me. The dubbing is off in a few places, especially when Murphy speaks. It’s jarring and it pulled me out of the movie, and I can’t imagine how that got past a professional director like Robert Rodriguez. In spite of the movie’s full willingness to be brutal (the demise of That Yellow Bastard is especially graphic, a testament to Rodriguez’ commitment to Miller’s work), there are a few places where the stage combat is obvious and awkward – for example, when Wendy is pistol-whipping Marv in the chair, it looks like she’s not actually hitting him. It looks like she’s stage acting, and it’s something that could have been easily fixed, giving a kind of a rushed feel to parts of the movie.

That scene brings to mind the scripting. For the most part, the sheer ballsy stylization of the film makes it work. In a few places, it’s made clear that Miller’s writing was really meant to be read on the page and not spoken, and in a few more places lines have been omitted or rewritten – badly. Cardinal Roark’s speech to Marv about cannibalism is shortened and redone, and when Roark says what was Marv’s line in the comic – “I joined in” – it’s just stupid. In Wendy's pistol-whipping scene, Miller had given Marv a great line about how she should be hitting him with the butt of the gun and not the barrel, and that’s inexplicably cut from the same scene in the film.

By and large, though, it works, and it’s why people are comparing this movie to Pulp Fiction. That comparison is a mistake. The only thing this movie shares with Pulp Fiction is a stylized unfriendliness to reality, and the guts to follow through. Pulp Fiction had an intentional hipness to it, a sense of humor that spoke to pot-smokers, coke-heads and beatniks, and everyone who ever secretly envied those people, and it made its audience feel like they were part of an interesting nu-retro scene, an homage to the culture of the American past with a sly wink to the present. Sin City offers no such invitation to its audience. There’s no broad social commentary or cultural mish-mash. Rather than taking a familiar world and giving it a self-conscious tweak, which is what Tarantino does, Sin City builds its own world from the ground up, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a film.

Frank Miller’s vision of Sin City had its origins in Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson and Dashiell Hammett, sure, but he took only the barest elements from those inspirations and ran in a totally new direction. Sin City the comic was (and in the film it remains) an experiment in bleeding stories down to their barest elements, their most necessary ingredients, and then using style and flair to rebuild the content. The result was at once pulpier and grittier than anything I’d ever seen and yet seemed obvious when it was done; why hadn’t I read that before? Why hadn’t I seen that before? It was too familiar not to have been calling back to some memory of a movie I’d seen as a kid. Then it hit me: this was a memory. This was how I remembered movies I’d seen as a kid. But where children use inexperience, the things they don’t know and haven’t seen, as the fuel of their imagination, adults do the opposite; they make comparisons to what they’ve already seen and heard and experienced to shape the things they imagine. Frank Miller recreated that immeasurable make-believe of my childhood, and served it to me as an adult. Robert Rodriguez seems to understand that. There was never a comic or a novel or a magazine like Sin City, and there’s never been a movie like it either.

FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from