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Published: Friday, 4/1/2005

Movie review: Sin City ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba are among the many big stars appearing in Sin City.
Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba are among the many big stars appearing in Sin City.
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As I left the press preview of Sin City, two elderly women strolled behind me, having somehow infiltrated the screening, and were loudly spouting:

"Worst movie of all time!"

"Not the worst, the filthiest!"

"No, it was the worst!"

"Without value!"

"Sickening! Vile!"

"When that guy with no arms and no legs is eaten by a wolf ... "

"Don't say it, don't say it!"

I turned and, as thoughtfully as I could, said "I really liked it."

"You're a serial killer, right?"

We talked for a bit, and they agreed maybe they weren't the right audience - "An audience of serial killers would be the audience, sir!" - and I sympathized.

Sin City is kind of a Cannonball Run of pulp excess, with more stars than the sky, and more violence than Pulp Fiction (which it resembles, except for the human touch). You have to be in the mood. It's a lot like that teenage clerk at the video store who thinks you should rent Fight Club and Pulp Fiction - again. He stands too close, and he spits when he talks; his ideal movie is a 13-year-old's fantasy of unappreciated tough guys and two-fisted dames in leather, wielding crossbows and wearing next to nothing. (There are a few here who are law-enforcement officers but I have no idea where you'd pin a badge on them.) And still, every now and again, something brilliant flies out of him.

Sin City, in other words, is off-putting, splattery, simplistic, misogynistic, sadistic - at times surprising and funny, but always thrillingly alive. If Bugs Bunny had been rendered using carved wooden blocks, if Raymond Chandler took ideas from Quentin Tarantino (and not the other way around), if the enveloping black-and-white cloak of classic '40s noir had never gone out of style - if they all had a love child, it'd look like Sin City, which is one of a kind - utterly unlike anything you've seen. For one, there are no shades of gray, and that's morally and literally.

Contrast rules, dude.

Muscle cars careen around country roads, their red hoods tiny islands of color against the ink-blot skies. A stripper's skin is an iridescent white, except when it takes a sandy sheen. And a serial killer's Harry Potter eye glasses glow with the harsh white glare of two search lights.

Sin City may feature Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, Brittany Murphy, Jamie King, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Mickey Rourke, Carla Gugino, Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, Michael Madsen, Alexis Bledel, Michael Clarke Duncan, Nick Stahl, and Benicio Del Toro (and for part of the time, just his head). But the star is the picture itself, and its stark beauty bleeds color in small doses. Because Sin City tells three fatalistic, interlocking tales of sweet revenge - very understandable revenge (Sin City is also surprisingly moralistic) - the place is crawling with familiar cliches:

Yellow-skinned goons (who are actually yellow), predatory creeps, cops on the take, prostitutes with hearts of gold (one is even named Goldie), ugly goons with big hearts, corrupt senators, men driven insane with rage, pedophiles, and gruff detectives, to quote Willis' character, working "the last hour of my last day on the job." When the film begins, Willis has cornered the pedophile son (Stahl) of a powerful man (Powers Boothe). The creep kidnapped a young girl but there's a traitor in the midst and Willis ends up on other end of a gun. "You're pushin' 60," Stahl snaps out, "and you got a bum ticker. You ain't savin' anybody."

That's the first story. (We circle back to it in the last act.) The next story is about Marv (Mickey Rourke), a rock monster of a man whose search for a prostitute's killer takes him to a farm, a surreal, artificial place that recalls the playset barnyard of Wizard of Oz. The third (and weakest) story stars Clive Owen as an FBI guy who helps an army of hookers (led by Rosario Dawson) hide the body (then the head) of an abusive cop (Del Toro). I mentioned it's a moralistic film.

It is - in the sense, men are men and the woman are hookers and the men want to protect their honor. Which leads to heavy-breathing narration like: "I'm killin' my way to the truth," and my favorite, "When I need to find something out, I just go and find people who know more than me and I ask them. And sometimes, I ask pretty hard."

So the prose is purple.

But Sin City is black-and-white, an adaptation of a comic book with images closer to graphic design than typical superhero panels. More remarkable than that source, though, is the movie, which wants to be nothing less than a pulsing, living comic book - and boy, if it doesn't come startlingly close. It looks like individual panels in the book were traced over, then staged as if the actors were mannequins in a perverse department store, then a million more panels were sketched in, and the whole thing was sped up to create the illusion of movement.

Which is to say, Sin City is largely black and white with splashes of red and blues and yellows in nearly every shot, and if that's all you needed to hear to know you don't want to see this, hold on: It's not the same thing as a black-and-white film. When it rains, the drops don't smear or drip. They slice like thousands of white shooting stars. That's the best way I can explain its expressionistic approach. There's a scene where Rourke's Marv gets bandaged up. His body is a jet black silhouette and those bandages take on a florescent glow.

Elegant, but the question is:

How faithful is too faithful?

When it stops being a film.

Sin City, directed by Robert Rodriguez, is always very much a film, but it demands the question be rethought. The original author is Frank Miller, a god among comic book fans; his The Dark Knight Returns triggered the Batman revival in the late '80s. He gets, in fact, a co-director's credit, a small role as a cannibalistic priest, and, in the marketing materials, his name dropped into the title: Frank Miller's Sin City is what we see during the opening credits, slashed across in a lurid shade of red - as if to not to confuse it with F. Scott Fitzgerald's Sin City.

Rodriguez - who makes his digital films (including the Spy Kids pictures) out of a tiny studio in Austin - is a wildly inconsistent director but also, a gutsy and a farsighted one. Miller's images and influence are so fundamentally a part of Sin City, Rodriguez lobbied the director's guild to let him share director's credit with the comic book artist. They refused and Rodriguez dropped his guild membership.

It's more than tasty gossip.

Rodriguez is showing that film is literally no longer film, and a digital film is so open to manipulation now, an art form that cross-pollinates with another art is not only inevitable but essential. (Tarantino, in fact, is the third collaborator; he directed a single scene.) Sin City may be literal-minded and adolescent to the extreme but the parts are so inseparable it redefines collaboration. That said, my nomination for the fourth musketeer is Rourke. He is a revelation. He's buried under makeup. His forehead sloops into his nose without curving. He's Kirk Douglas by way of a UPS truck. He's also able to show a soul beneath all the trickery. That's the future.

"You can't kill a man without knowing you ought to," he says.

Whatever it means, amen.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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