Dimension Films // 2005 // 124 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // October 31st, 2005
"What have you done?" -- Gail
"Exactly what I had to. Every step of the way." -- Dwight
I got a feeling that this was going to be a bloody movie while I was navigating the menu by moving around a splatter on the screen with my remote. It was an accurate feeling. Surreal violence in this noirish spectacle is used to symbolize the corruption that is Basin City, from the priests fooling around with hookers to the powerful people covering up unspeakable sins, to the betrayals and double-crosses. It's a place where everybody's got a gun, and nobody ever runs out of bullets. One guy says he has, but that's only 'cause he prefers grenades. It's a place where a hero is someone who can live just long enough to get the job done.
On a rooftop high above Basin City, a salesman (Josh Hartnett, Pearl Harbor) romances a beautiful woman (Marley Shelton, Uptown Girls), her lips and dress highlighted in red. Abruptly, there's more red as he shoots her, still holding her close to him. This three-minute opening scene capsulizes all the themes of the movie, and served as the sales pitch for co-director Robert Rodriguez -- who shot it in a day, added some eye-popping CGI visuals, and used it both to convince a reluctant Frank Miller to sell him the rights to the Sin City graphic novels (and sign on as co-director) and to draw stars such as Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, and Jessica Alba to the film. The movie is based on three of Miller's graphic novels -- The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill, and That Yellow Bastard, with the occasional scene taken from elsewhere in Miller's works -- and follows three basic bloody threads.
On his last day on the job, honest cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis, Die Hard, Unbreakable) wants to rescue "a young girl who's out there somewhere, helpless in the hands of a drooling lunatic," over the objections of his partner. He's got what he thinks -- or at least hopes -- is indigestion as he races to the warehouse where she's being held and battles hired thugs. "Catch your breath. Give your heart time to slow down. But it won't slow down," Hartigan thinks in one of his many voiceovers, as he clutches his chest. Hartigan chases the villain (Nick Stahl, Carnivale) to a lonely dock, where he administers his own brand of maiming justice on the lunatic before being shot in the back by his own partner. The last reel catches up to Hartigan as he finds that Nancy (Jessica Alba, Fantastic Four), the girl he saved years ago, has become an ecdysiast and, with his unwitting help, is being stalked by a mysterious man with the bright yellow skin of an extraterrestrial.
The red sheets ex-con Marv (Mickey Rourke, Wild Orchid, Domino -- with a squarer jaw, thanks to prosthetics) wakes up on are redder than usual -- red with the blood of dead hooker Goldie (Jaime King, Pearl Harbor, Kitchen Confidential). He's keeping one step ahead of the cops as he tracks down her killer. He thinks he sees Goldie alive, but that's not a good thing -- the woman's running him down with her car and taking shots at him. The trail leads to cannibal Kevin (Elijah Wood, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), who looks like an evil Charlie Brown in that sweater with the one jagged stripe.
Dwight (Clive Owen, Croupier) scares off Jackie-boy (Benicio Del Toro, 21 Grams, Snatch), who's slapping around a waitress (Brittany Murphy, Don't Say a Word, Uptown Girls), but just has to chase the guy into Old Towne. There, hookers run the neighborhood, with lots of guns, very little clothing (Rodriguez risked the worst set-conditions pneumonia epidemic since Lifeboat), and the help of Miho (Devon Aoki, 2 Fast 2 Furious), a beautiful ninja fighter who watches over them from the rooftops. Jackie-boy puts the scare into a hooker, leading to a confrontation that leaves Jackie-boy and his gang dead. The trouble's not over, though. When Dwight and the girls start going through the pockets of the dead men, they find that Jackie-boy's a cop, and the truce between the hookers and the Basin City Police may soon be at an end.
The visuals may be great, but Mickey Rourke's performance as the unstoppable, not quite human Marv was a highlight for me. He manages to keep his pursuit of justice ("I look for somebody who knows more than me, and I ask them. Sometimes, I ask pretty hard.") looking like an archetypal tale of good and evil, even as he gets up, bloody but unbowed, after being shot and struck by cars repeatedly; even as his scenes take on the visual feel of a video game, as his unreal figure moves through lines of baddies. His isn't the only strong performance here; Bruce Willis brings conviction to his square-shooting Hartigan, while Jessica Alba adds a touch of unexpected sweetness (although, I must point out, her Nancy owns a gun). Across the board, the strong cast keeps a movie that's heavy on tough-guy voiceovers, hookers with hearts of steel, and rough justice on its mythological keel, steering clear of campy jokes. There's a bit of humor here and there, such as waitress Shellie's comment about her champion ("He's Superman. He flew out the window"), which reminds us of Miller's comic book roots -- but the movie mostly plays it stark and straight.
The violence becomes repetitive after a while, probably since the movie strings together three intense graphic novels. I came to that conclusion the second time I saw a good guy holding a bad guy's head down in a toilet. It also takes on a Tales from the Crypt quality, with bad guys meeting gory, bizarre, ironic ends. Baddies' heads (sans bodies) are a sought-after trophy here, and evil-doing men tend to get hurt in the most personal place.
Quentin Tarantino fans will note that he stepped in for one piece of Sin City. Since the film has a visual unity that's seamless, it was hard to tell, so I looked it up: It's the one where Dwight takes a drive with a corpse.
In Sin City, color interrupts the stark black-and-white imagery in order to draw your attention to some aspect of the scene. This transfer delivers the movie's bold, comic-book colors with excellence. During a chase, the red of the good guy's car, the blue of the bad guys' car, and the flashing lights of a police car boil the scene down to its most basic elements, making it that much more exciting. Later, when Dwight drives seated next to a corpse, becoming less sure that the man's really dead, the flashes of red, green, yellow, and blue in the background lighting make his fear that much more real. The movie also keeps the graphic novel perspectives; from above, with no surrounding cells, a jail cell looks like the cage it is, for example. After a while, the color white takes on a neon look against the shadows. The sound brings alive every gun blast, every crunch of bone or squish of blood, and all the pulse-pounding music, and preserves the soft-spoken noirish voiceovers as well.
This version has only one extra, a behind-the-scenes featurette. It's a good one, since it shows the original graphic novel images, and the green scene filming next to the finished scenes in the film, but it's only about 10 minutes long. If you're interested in learning more about this technical tour-de-force, the extended version (due out December 13) will come packed with extras.
Even though you know it's not real, and that it's only a story, there are a couple of scenes that will (or should) wrench your guts. When characters bled a surrealistic and less gory white instead of all-too-authentic red more and more as the movie went on, I found it welcome. If your guts are easily wrenched, you'd be better off skipping this movie, and trying, instead, the milder CGI visual spectacle of the PG-rated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
Sin City's a fascinating place to visit on film from the comfortable distance of your living room, but you wouldn't want to live there. Or shouldn't. After all, it isn't just the newspapers that are black and white and red all over in Basin City. Frank Miller praised the movie as a graphic novel come to life, and he certainly hit the mark. Even if CGI technology passes Sin City by, the actors and the good vs. evil storyline will still impress.
The movie's not guilty, but the guiltiest Sinners will want to hang on until December 13 for the recut, extended version, rather than double-dip.
Review content copyright © 2005 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Dimension Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "Behind the Scenes" Featurette
* Unofficial Sin City Site