Black And White And Red All Over

'Sin City,' based on the graphic novels, is all too true to the original: bloody


April 01, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Sin City raises the question, "Does every milestone comic book demand to be made into a movie?" and answers it with a resounding "No." Frank Miller has co-directed three of his own Sin City graphic novels with Robert Rodriguez, who also shot and cut the film, composed the music and plays a corrupt priest. The result is probably the most literal adaptation of a published work ever committed to celluloid - also the most repetitive and assaulting.

The grabby graphics exert a hypnotic spell. The movie goes from black and white to white on black, with bright splashes of color, as if Miller and Rodriguez were telling their tales in X-rays smeared with blood. But they cram all the vengeance and torture and punishment and perversion from three narratives into a single episodic one that registers as a prolonged sick joke, or a "Can you top this?" dare at some frat house for violent moviemakers. (Quentin Tarantino, who in his Kill Bill mode has been a creative soul brother to Rodriguez, chipped in for a day and a half of shooting.)

Miller's graphic novels take pulp fiction to its most ludicrous noir extremes. With gutter-florid words and images, he replays and amps up the time-tested formulas of tough individualists treading mean streets with personal codes that don't include charity or mercy. Corrupt rulers control church and state and preserve every twisted vice within the urban family. The best a man of integrity can expect from Sin City is the kind of separate peace exacted by the prostitutes in "Old Town," who strike a deal with the cops to guard themselves without police interference. But this supercharged cynicism becomes tedious even in graphic-novel form.

What is compelling about Miller's work is the way it simultaneously exposes male weakness and celebrates male strength. It's an expression of adolescent insecurity given adult potency. Between book covers, it's fascinating. With real actors anchoring virtuoso digital re-creations of Miller's black-shadow cityscapes, it's pummeling and wearying. But the film's smorgasbord of wish fulfillments - teenage boy variety - will probably win it a huge cult.

A self-consciously ugly, ridiculously resilient thug named Marv is the first antihero of Sin City. Mickey Rourke plays him with even more disfiguring makeup than he wore in Johnny Handsome, the 1989 Walter Hill film that actually achieved this movie's botched combination of tautness and hyperbole. Marv is so touched that a beautiful woman made love to him that he moves heaven and earth, or, rather, hell on earth, to avenge her murder. A melodramatic surrogate for male geeks and studs alike, Marv stands in for every half-formed high-schooler who fears his physical changes make him look grotesque - but also thinks they make him superpowerful.

In a sequence with Benicio Del Toro, Clive Owen plays the purest fantasy figure, a gallant lone-wolf private eye named Dwight. He unites with the working gals to protect their turf when a cop is mistakenly killed in Old Town. This arc at least shows off Owen's charisma and dexterity as a back-alley Bond.

Bruce Willis brings his italicized intensity to the role of scarred John Hartigan, Sin City's sole righteous cop and the ultimate male guardian. The surface plot is pure cliche: A lawman an hour away from retirement wants to close his last case and rescue an 11-year-old girl from a well-connected sadist. Underneath it's a hardboiled male weepie about a man who sacrifices all for love. It appeals to the boy masochists who feel "if only she knew how far I'd go for her." But it's difficult to savor the caring amid the carnage.

The prostitute protection corps contains some nifty women warriors, especially Miho (Devon Aoki), who wreaks marvelous havoc with blades. But what fuels the action, the main characters and the harsh yet luxuriant look is comic-book machismo raised to the nth degree - brought to the gut-wrenching, bone-crushing point where believers can suck it up and skeptics can treat it as "ironic." Sin City is a seedy tribute to rugged masculinity disguised as a rogue's gallery, all the better to please college boys who like their sentimentality slicked with grunge. The distributors might have missed a beat by not putting it out in time for spring break.

Sin City

Starring Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Bruce Willis

Directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez

Released by Dimension

Rated R

Running time 126 minutes

Sun Score **

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