Comic Relief

Salt Lake City Weekly | March 23, 2005
Fanboys everywhere, rejoice: Somebody actually gives a crap what you might think about a comic book or graphic novel turned into a movie.

Oh, the filmmakers always say the right things. They dutifully show up at comic book conventions with their clip reels. They talk about respecting the source material, massaging the target audience’s anticipation into a big opening weekend geek-out. Then some humongous turd like THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN turns up on movie screens, and fans kick themselves for getting suckered yet again.

There have been plenty of good comic book movies over the years—-from SUPERMAN II to SPIDER-MAN 2—-and ROAD TO PERDITION had a fundamentally accurate visual sensibility. But no one has ever shown the commitment to fidelity that Robert Rodriguez displays in SIN CITY. In the past, comic book innovator Frank Miller has had to watch his work turned into movies like DAREDEVIL and ELEKTRA—-the kind of thing that inspires a whole lotta fetal-position rocking. This time around, he got a director willing to quit the Director’s Guild of America in order to preserve Miller’s indelible stamp. And he got a movie so dialed-in to its graphic novel roots that it practically creates a new visual language.

On a story level, Rodriguez and Miller adapt three of the seven SIN CITY volumes into an anthology set in the corrupt, decaying metropolis of Basin City. From “The Hard Goodbye” comes the tale of Marv (Mickey Rourke), a massive, hotheaded goon who sets out to avenge the death of a prostitute who shows him kindness. “The Big Fat Kill” dives into the world of the prostitutes, and an ex-criminal named Dwight (Clive Owen) trying to prevent a war between mobsters, cops and hookers. Bookending those two are two halves of “That Yellow Bastard,” in which aging cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis) faces the consequences of thwarting a child-molesting murderer (Nick Stahl) with highly-placed connections.

As grim as those basic synopses may sound, SIN CITY is actually rougher than that. The film probably avoided an NC-17 only because the stylized black-and-white photography renders graphic violence in shades of white and yellow as often as blood red. Characters are shot, limbs are decapitated and faces are pummeled into something quite literally resembling pulp. This is the brutal, hard-boiled world of Miller’s creation, and Rodriguez does nothing to tone it down.

He does, however, make it wicked cool. Shots by the score are lifted directly from the SIN CITY books, creating vivid, singular images: a cannibalistic psycho (Elijah Wood, going about as anti-Frodo as it’s possible to go) whose eyeglasses reflect a crisp, dead white; overhead views of a lonely jail cell; horrifying moments thrown into silhouette. Throw in some mordant humor—-including a priceless Quentin Tarantino-directed segment involving a hallucinated conversation between Dwight and a corpse—-and effective use of Raymond Chandler-style narration, and you’ve got one of those movies that keeps you buzzing from the thrill of watching something unlike anything you’ve seen before.

If there’s one thing that keeps SIN CITY from being truly great, it’s the nagging sense that cool is the only sensibility Robert Rodriguez truly cares about. Rodriguez has turned into a one-man digital age studio—-photographing, editing, composing the music and probably catering for his films over the last several years—-and SIN CITY shows that he understands how to exploit technology that allows him to create a universe out of actors and green screens. He often, however, gives his stories too much gee-whiz and not enough humanity. SIN CITY’s three narratives, though all framed as tough-guy love stories, never really connect on an emotional level to match the visual theatrics. There’s a whole lot of George Lucas in Rodriguez’s approach to filmmaking, and that’s not exactly a compliment.

But while there are rare filmmakers like Tarantino who can create characters as distinctive as their individual scenes, there’s a place as well for awesome exercises in style. While Robert Rodriguez may not be able to match the tragedy of Frank Miller’s best work as a writer, he captures the artistry of the graphic novel better than anyone ever has before. And throughout the fanboy universe, there are dances of joy.

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