Repeating the advanced visual effects technology first put to notable use in 2004's "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
," "Sin City" is an amazing display of creative filmmaking artistry. By shooting actors mostly in front of barren backgrounds and green screens and then inserting them in computer-designed landscapes, director Robert Rodriguez (2003's "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over
") has adapted creator/co-director Frank Miller's original works into a living and breathing comic book world come to life. In making a motion picture this way, normal live-action barriers are broken and the cinematic scope can be broadened as far as the filmmakers' imagination will take them.
Unfortunately, technological razzle-dazzle can only travel so far when there is nothing else behind it but fireworks. Without having read Frank Miller's comic books, it has been well-noted that "Sin City" is a nearly word-for-word, faithful rendering of its source material. How well this stringent devotion to the graphic page is pulled off is debatable. "Sin City" is often breathtaking to look at, but its core is without a pulse.
The film plays out like the ultimate film noir
to end all film noirs
, complete with shady dealings, even shadier characters, murder, revenge, betrayal, painful love, deus ex machinas
, and always-illuminated cigarette exhales. The central anti-heroeseveryone is an anti-hero is one way, shape, or formare taken to narrating long stretches of sultry cornball dialogue that may work alright in comic book form but sounds on film like the kind of stuff Leslie Nielsen's Lt. Frank Drebin always droned on about to hilarious effect in "The Naked Gun" trilogy. So reliant is "Sin City" on narration that the experience is almost like having to read a bad novel, one which tells the audience everything rather than actually shows them. When characters actually talk in the present to one another, it startles far more than anything on display in the narrativeemotionally, viscerally, or otherwise.
Aimlessly plotted and, in true Tarantino-fashion (he guest-directs a brief interlude between Benicio Del Toro and Clive Owen in a car), out of chronological order, "Sin City" doesn't tell a story so much as it presents a vague tapestry of the lowlifes residing in the grimy, violent metropolis of Basin City. Marv (Mickey Rourke), who has a face only a mother could love, seeks vengeance for the death of Goldie (Jaime King), a fiery streetwalker who actually gave him the time of day when no one else would. His hunt takes him to a farmhouse lived in by Kevin (Elijah Wood), a murderous cannibal with a penchant for eating the bodies of women and mounting their heads on walls like prized hunting trophies.
Police officer John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is left for dead by a pack of thugs who kidnapped 11-year-old Nancy Callahan (Makenzie Vega). Eight years later, he returns to find a filled-out, grown-up Nancy (Jessica Alba) dancing at a strip club and now romantically pining for him. They are stalked by a deformed figure from their past known as Yellow Bastard (an unrecognizable Nick Stahl).
In a third thread, Dwight (Clive Owen) hunts down scummy Jack Rafferty (Benicio Del Toro), the abusive ex-boyfriend of his new waitress girl, Shellie (Brittany Murphy). Soon, he has teamed up with a tough gaggle of hookers led by Gail (Rosario Dawson) to teach Rafferty and his tag-along cronies a deadly lesson they won't soon forget.
A black-and-white thriller peppered with purposefully overblown dark comedic touches and radiant flashes of sporadic colorgreen eyes here, thick and red blood there"Sin City" embraces the exaggerated tone of Frank Miller's comic book. Where else, after all, would one find people mowed down in blazes of rapid gunfire and still live to tell the tale? "Sin City" has the visual design of a comic book down to an art. In fact, it might be beneficial and less intrusive to watch it with the sound muted when the movie arrives on DVD. Never one to slack on the illusory side of filmmaking, director Robert Rodriguez breaks new ground when virtually every week a picture comes along that breaks ground from a state-of-the-art technical standpoint.
What "Sin City" lacks is a driving force to take the viewer through this glorious landscape. Without a character to latch onto and get a chance to know, and without any thematic relevance to make up for its plotless narrative, the film is dishearteningly empty and emotionless. Why should we care about these people and their vengeful motives? Because Rodriguez, who also is given screenwriting credit, fails to answer these questions, one's interest flags and the film runs out of gas before the third act has even arrived.
Bruce Willis (2005's "Hostage
") is a crushing bore as John Hartiganhis interludes are the most in need of an energy boostbut other performances are simply fabulous. Clive Owen (2004's "Closer
") is a real force in the brooding role of Dwight, exuding such palpable sex appeal that it makes no difference who his audience is, and the scenes he shares with Benicio Del Toro (2003's "The Hunted
") are the most alive in the film. Mickey Rourke (2000's "Get Carter
"), as the physically imposing Marv, is just as potent in the biggest role he's had in years. And playing against type, Elijah Wood (2003's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
") is visciously creepy as the silent but deadly Kevin.
"Sin City" is all flash and no substance, more worthwhile as a novelty piece than as a legitimately involving feature. A delight to gaze upon, but just as hazily put together on a writing level, the picture moves forward while standing still. Heavy misogynistic overtonespractically all of the female cast members are playing prostitutesare unavoidably off-putting, as well. When the two-hour running time was over, "Sin City" left me more disappointed than invigorated, with a distinct sense that a lot of time had been spent on something that didn't add up to nearly as much as directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller likely intended.