As I said in my Predators review, Robert Rodriquez earned the deserved love of millions for his quite bad ass, pseudo-mythic Mariachi films…though I only developed my man-crush on him after From Dusk Til Dawn, which is still the best vampire film of the last twenty years. (Yeah, that’s right. Eat it and like it, Twihards.) As a comic book fan, I’m supposed to have a similar man-crush on Frank Miller, but honestly I’ve hated everything with his name on it since about the mid-90s…round about the time he began publishing Sin City under the banner of Dark Horse Comics.
Even my love for Miller’s early superhero work is purely intellectual. I certainly appreciate its influence. Without The Dark Knight Returns, Batman as we know him would not exist…and neither would the rest of modern superhero film. Some might say that’s as good a reason as any to deploy a time-traveling cyborg with orders to kill Miller in infancy…but “some” might just be cynically stalling for time rather than actually talking about Sin City.
Begun as an anthology series in Dark Horse Presents (which was the kind of title young comic book companies ship out as Appetizer Sampler Platters), Sin City served as a vehicle for Miller to tell stories absent the weight of continuity and editorial fiat that (allegedly) drove him from mainstream, superhero stories at the Big Two companies, D.C. and Marvel. Unfortunately, this is an anthology movie and, as such, Sin City walks into all the leg-traps that have beset anthology films in the past: tonal schizophrenia, narrative incoherence, and a single story that’s so well-designed and kick ass it puts the others on permanent Shame Notice.
We see the first of these traps in the opening sequence as an unrecognizable Josh Hartnett monologues at us. We watch him creep up on Marley Shelton, who’s catching some air at a social event we don’t spend too much time on. Offering her a smoke as she asks if he’s “as bored with this crowd as I am,” Hartnett suavely turns that into a complement on her eyes. They embrace…and boom, he kills her with a silenced pistol, still monologing away. “I’ll cash her check in the morning.” Cue credits, and start forgetting about everything you’ve just seen. It’ll have not one blessed thing to do with the rest of the film.
Like any good mix tape, Sin City starts off strong and then takes it up a notch with the series’ two heaviest hitters: stories even nonfans like me might’ve heard off, checked out of our local library, read…and promptly forgotten about. Here they are, in living black and white (plus the occasional flash of red or yellow), moving at twenty-four glossy pages per second. So why don’t I care? Why can’t I roll out the (bright, blood-) red carpet for this film like every other critic and their mom’s already done? The back of my DVD shows this film sucked torrents of liquid praise from the otherwise flaccid and ungenerous members of the movie critic community. So why can’t this flick get me up? It’s got everything: mindless violence and titties for the masses, artsy-fartsy pretensions for the ruling class, and it looks “cool” enough to convince the hipster douchebags that a good “comic book movie” might actually exist. What’s wrong with me, then, I wonder? And was that mole there yesterday?
Nothing to do with anthologies but mow through them them one by one, and Sin City helps by not being an “adaption” so much as, in Rodriquez’s words, a “translation” of its source. So on the other side of the credits we find ourselves deep inside
The Yellow Bastard (Part I). Aging Cop Who Doesn’t Play By the Rules Hartigan (Bruce Willis – shocking, this film’s casting against type) is one day away from retirement (double shock) and, in a bold break with cliche, is racing against the clock to close one more case: the case of a murdering, rapist, pedophile son of a powerful Senator. That son, Roark Jr. (Nick Stahl), is about to claim the life of an eleven year-old girl named Nancy (Makenzie Vega) and Hartigan can’t allow that. Not even a “bum ticker” can sway him from this quest. Like the protagonist of many a Nine Inch Nails song, nothing can stop Hartigan now because he just don’t care. After rescuing Nancy and shooting Roark’s ear, hand, and balls off, Hartigan’s (gasp) betrayed by his former partner, Bob (Michael Madsen), who fills Hartigan with more bullets than a revolver that size could possibly hold. Must’ve gone to the same magical gun store as Dr. Sam Loomis.
Thankfully, back-up arrives before anyone remembers to kill the little girl, sole witness to Roark Jr.’s perversions. Bleeding out as he delivers a poignant and quite-nice final speech, we and Hartigan fade to black….
Alright, fine. Not that bad. Bit predictable, bit over the top, and the retro-noir dialogue is grating a bit, since at this point it’s composed entirely of Cop Movie cliches. But you have to lull the plebs into a false sense of mediocrity, the better to hit them in the face with
The Hard Goodbye. Or, as I’ve titled it, The Ultimate Frank Miller Story. “Two time looser” and brick shithouse Marv (Mickey Rourke) wakes from a one-night stand with an “angel” named Goldie (Jaime King) to find her dead in their “cheap” motel room (that’s yards bigger than any cheap motel room I’ve ever shared with a “dame”). Whoever killed Goldie didn’t make a sound until they called the cops on Marv. Not that the S.C.P.D. can hit anything (the department seems beset by Stormtrooper’s Disease). Marv’s a titanic slab of man-meat and a one man army anyway, possessed of neigh-invulnerability to rival John McClaine or the Tick. Armed with that, his gun Gladys, and a succession of designer trench coats, Marv proceeds to kill his way across town and up Sin City’s criminal “food chain” in the search for Goldie’s true killer.
Marv’s interior monologue accompanies the story, adding an extra touch of outrageousness to the tired, Death Wish formula. His narration oozes so much testosterone your body will have to up the estrogen to just to survive. Before him, the mightiest action hero is as nothing. Because of him, The Hard Goodbye is easily the best of Sin City‘s bunch. It’s a visceral, gruesome deconstruction of murderous quests for revenge, elevated past monomythic pretensions to become a monomyth in itself.
I won’t spoil it any further, except to the say that the rest of Sin City cannot hope to reach The Hard Goodbye‘s level of sheer Awesomeness. It’s a much tighter, slimmer story than The Big Fat Kill and not nearly as same-old-manipulative as The Yellow Bastard. On its own, this would be a 4.5 G feature, but it can only stand as the high point in a much-less-entertaining film. We’re barely half way through, giving Sin City far, far, far too much time to wallow in its own artistic obsessions. And I think I just summed up Frank Miller’s entire career by accident. Oh well. On to
The Big Fat Kill. Shellie (Brittany Murphy) is a waitress at the bar where Marv stopped off in the last feature. Her old boyfriend, Johnny Boy (Benecio del Toro), is pounding on her door. Her new boyfriend, Dwight (Clive Owen), is a self-described “murderer with a new face,” already inside her apartment and all-but begging her to let Johnny Boy in for some remedial lessons in the proper way to treat a woman. Dwight convinces Johnny Boy to skidattle through head-in-a-toilet-bowl diplomacy. Why he doesn’t kill Johnny outright…is a plot contrivance. If he did, we’d have no reason to go meet The Ladies.
Convinced he must stop Johnny Boy before the drunken fool and his carload of assheads take their rage out on some unfortunate hooker, Dwight tails Johnny Boy into Old Town, the exclusive domain of Sin City’s prostitutes. Led by the glorious Gail (the glorious Rosario Dawson) the Ladies’ regime is apparently so successful no cop or mobster in the city dares muscle in on their turf. After all, they’ve got big guns and at least one of them is a practicing ninja, so I guess Dolemite sowed the seeds of his own destruction back in the 70s. I’m sure his body’s out their somewhere. Probably at the bottom of one of Sin City’s tar pits.
Johnny Boy’s drunken intransigence gets him killed by ninja prostitute Miho (actual ex-supermodel Devon Aoki). Only then do Dwight and the Ladies learn Johnny Boy was a cop. His death threatens to shatter the fragile truce between the Ladies and the Law, the only thing keeping the Mob from sweeping down on Old Town and returning all the Ladies to sexual slavery. Dwight, who’s responsible for all this, agrees to hide the bodies. The plot thickeneth when Mob-hired mercenaries steal Johnny Boy’s head. Will Dwight and Miho reclaim it before the Mob turns it over to the Cops? Does anyone really care? Or were you all too busy staring at all those hot women in the fetish outfits?
Dwight made a cameo in The Hard Goodbye, temporarily seizing the monologue crown from Marv. What he declared is as good a sample of Frank Miller’s Sin City dialogue as any. If you can spend two hours listening to this, congrats! You’ve found your film. “Some people think Marv is crazy,” Dwight says. “He just had the rotten luck of being born in the wrong century. He’d be 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 like him. They woulda tossed him girls like Nancy back then.”
Nancy, by the way (is Jessica Alba, last seen in her contemporary turn as Jessica Alba in the Fantastic Four atrocity), is the nineteen-year-old stripper at the bar where Shellie works and Marv began his quest for Goldie’s killers. A lot of people have needlessly compared the film to Pulp Fiction because of this damn bar and the fact that Tarantino tore himself away from his Bride long enough to direct one scene in The Big Fat Kill. This bar’s the only real eye in a swirling hurricane of blood, tits, gunfire and torture scenes. It’s a violence-free vacuum, symbolic of the intellectual vacuum at Sin City’s heart…and most of Miller’s post-Martha Washington work, now that I think about it.
For example: Dwight’s yet another unkillable badass in a trench coat with more luck than sense, a nice car, and a distaste for people who brutalize women. Do you see why I should love this film? That’s everything I am or ever hope to be right there! How could it fuck it all up? Well, while Detective Hartigan (ret.) is at least a recognizable noir cliche, Dwight and Marv are straight-up fanboy self-identification characters, relics of a age when such beings became the biggest-selling thing in comics (leading some to call the post-Watchmen era “the Dark Age of Comic Books”). And while Hartigan and Marv reacted to the chaotic swirl of Sin City with a certain verisimilitude (for this setting at least), Dwight’s actions only serve as an excuse to pack the screen with hot chicks and film them all with their asses perfectly centered in the frame.
In case my rambling didn’t clue you in, The Big Fat Kill is really Sin City‘s weakest link. Composed entirely of fan service (blood, guns, sexy ladies with guns, sexy ninja ladies with swords and throwing stars) it left me empty and cold…in spite of the fact I enjoyed the hell out of it. Certain scenes (with Dawson, or Aoki, or, God willing, both) warmed me up quite nicely. There’s just a soulless undercurrent to all this, leaving me incapable of investing any emotion in what’s essentially an emotionless movie. Bypassing the heart, it goes right for the gut, ignoring the brain completely.
And you know what? It’s really sad that fourteen-year-old boys couldn’t see this in the theaters. It’s perfect for them. My fourteen-year-old self would’ve considered this the greatest thing since sliced meat. Only fourteen-year-olds and forensic pathologists are this fascinated with blood splatter patterns and situations where “we have to kill them all.” Take our next story, for example,
The Yellow Bastard (Part II): Accused of Roark Jr.’s crimes, tried and jailed through the machinations of Senator Roark (Senior), Detective Hartigan (ret.) rots in a German impressionist cell for eight years. Every week, little Nancy sends him a letter. Then the letters cease and, in their place, Hartigan receives a severed index finger. He confesses to Junior’s crimes…and this, somehow, allows him to be paroled. I would’ve been a little suspicious at this point, but hey…I’m not Bruce Willis. What do I know?
Uh-oh. Turns out it was all a gigantic bluff. Hartigan’s attempts to find Nancy only lead the still-alive Junior to that same damn bar we talked about early. Turns out little Nancy’s grown up into Jessica Alba. Here’s where I called a time out on this movie. It’s telling me that the only living witness to the Roark family’s depravity and corruption grew into a woman, put herself into law school, got a side gig as a stripper in the one bar in this entire town that everyone seems to go to…and did it all under her own frickin’ name. Yet it took a gigantic subterfuge involving the man who shot his balls off last time for the Forces of Junior to find her? Yeah, right.
There are two major schools of thought on this film. One declares it to be a “visually arresting” portrait of humanity’s gritty, grimy dark side. That’s bullshit because these days those portraits are called “news broadcasts.”
The contrary, equally-bullshit school of thought holds that this film is a blanket endorsement of the violence it depicts. Puh-leeze. Some people just have these kinds of stories in them. Frank Miller’s head just happens to be stuffed with violent revenge fantasies and hot women in Zorro costumes. (Or would that be Zorra costumes? It would, wouldn’t it?) So’s mine…on occasion. I can dig it. But after awhile all this hyper-masculine imagery and fascination with bodily fluid gets tiring. There just isn’t any there here. Just one-note characters cutting straight-line paths through the entrails, necks and heads of their foes. With katanas. And hatchets. And sharpened swastikas.
That vague boredom you feel as yet another person disgorges gallons of blood from their single gunshots wound is the “desensitizing” effect cultural conservatives (and liberal stick-in-the-muds) fear when they talk of the “harm” fake violence causes our culture. We all know (or should know, at any rate) that fake violence only desensitizes its viewers to further fake violence. Real world violence is another matter, one the film (and its source) sidesteps by dressing everything up in high contrast visuals and a self-contained fantasy world that’s far too polished to be “gritty” or “grimy” or “real.” In Sin City, even the parole officers look like supermodels, and you can bet your ass they sleep (and pad around the apartment looking for the source of That Strange Noise) in g-strings and nothing else.
Not that I mind the sight of Carla Gugino’s tits. I mind that her tits have a more complex character arc than she does. Every character in the film ends exactly where they begin because Miller doesn’t care about characters. He blew that creative wad back in the 80s, making Daredevil and Batman interesting enough to film. To read Sin City is to watch Miller learn to coast on stale noir tropes and his Madonna/Whore complex.
Since this is America, that’s been more than enough for ol’ Frank, who’s at last become insanely rich and famous for things he did twenty years ago. And it’s not like there isn’t good stuff here. Rodriquez has produced the most faithful comic book adaption of this or any decade. The entire cast turns in great performances (even Alba, God help us), subsuming themselves into their respective characters. Apart from everyone mentioned, I’d like to shout out to Elijah Wood, looking like a Nega-Tobey Maguire in his role as Kevin the Cannibal. Plus there’s Gail the Valkyrie. And little Miho. Can’t mention them enough since they keep guest starring in my dreams.
It’s pretty, certainly…it’s just so dumb critics had nothing to hold onto but it’s artistic style. So if that’s your thing, own it. But films with flat characters and money-shot-centered plots shouldn’t get a free pass just because they were painted up inside a computer. We used to call those “Slasher movies.” Now, thanks to Rodriquez, Trantino, and others, murder porn has escaped the plantations of Haddonfield, Springwood, and Crystal Lake. So good job, guys…I guess. Hope you all stay classy.