movie film review | chris tookey

Sin City

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  Sin City Review
Tookey's Rating
6 /10
Average Rating
6.56 /10
Hartigan: Bruce Willis, Marv: Mickey Rourke
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Directed by: Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez , with guest directing by Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez

Released: 2005
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 126

Sin City is the first must-see movie of 2005. Whether you like it or not, this is going to be a hugely important influence on future film-makers and computer game designers. And it looks fabulous.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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In achieving virtually a frame-for-frame remake of Frank Miller’s blood-soaked comic-books (so faithfully that Miller gets a co-directing credit), Robert Rodriguez has made the first moving picture that captures completely the energy, excitement and graphic style of a comic strip, or “graphic novel” as we are now supposed to call them.

Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man both came close, but this movie nails it. Rodriguez has distilled the essence of film noir and Warner Brothers’ black-and-white thrillers of the 1940s, and come up with a movie that is, at the very least, a triumph of pastiche. Its combination of lustrous, moody black and white with splashes of brilliant colour (often blood-red) makes this one of the most visually stunning pictures ever. If looks were everything, this would be a five-star classic.

The screenplay is a curious mixture of Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler. There’s a real love of language on display, and Bruce Willis gets a kick out of delivering world-weary wisecracks at the expense of “thugs with delusions of eloquence” or complaining about modernity: “Modern cars,” he grumbles at one point, “they all look like electric shavers.”

Had Tarantino not used the title first, Sin City might have been called Pulp Fiction. Like Tarantino’s film, it’s a series of interconnecting short stories, set in a timeless American city where 40s trench-coats and 60s Cadillacs exist alongside modern fetish-wear and new Ferraris.

There are three heroes. Bruce Willis (pictured right - and that’s Jessica Alba in the background) plays Hartigan, an ageing cop with a heart condition – so at least he has a heart. He’s the last honest cop in town (even his sidekick, played by Michael Madsen, shoots at him). Hartigan has one last case to crack before his tortured ticker gives out, and that’s to track down a serial killer-rapist of small girls. This brings him into conflict with the pervert himself (Nick Stahl) and his father (Powers Boothe), who is of course a crooked senator (in film noir, is there any other kind?)

Then there’s Marv (superbly played by Mickey Rourke under a ton of prosthetic makeup that, oddly enough, makes him look less grotesque than he does normally). Marv is a hulking, seven-foot Cro-Magnon thug who spends a night with a gorgeous whore (Jamie King) but wakes up to find her murdered. So he chases her killer, a maniac who decapitates women and sticks their heads on his wall like hunting trophies, having eaten the rest of them.

This character, by the way, is played with maximum creepiness by Elijah Wood, who has traded dirty hobbits for dirty habits, and is protected by a depraved Cardinal (Rutger Hauer) who doesn’t appear to regard cannibalism as a sin.

Clive Owen, surprisingly ill-at-ease with an American accent, at least gets to parade his style of handsomeness as the third hero. Dwight, a private detective, is the only man in Sin City that the prostitutes trust. He’s on the trail of Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro), a drunken bully who enjoys beating up women. “It really gets my goat,” snarls Dwight, in his odd mixture of East Side and East End, “when guys rough up dames.”

If the film is about anything, it’s about masculinity. All three heroes are pursuing their own vision of decency in a society that has lost its moral compass.

Sin City is also, however, a male sexual fantasy, where all the women are femmes fatales, beautiful babes in need of protection or tough, gorgeous dominatrixes brandishing phallic firearms.

Every leading actress in the film – whether it be Jessica Alba as an exotic dancer, Rosario Dawson as Queen of the street-whores, Brittany Murphy as a waitress in Old Town’s dirtiest drinking den, or Carla Gugino (who gets to play the film’s most original creation, a nude, lesbian, amputee parole-officer) gets to be saved by one of the male heroes.

Within the limits of caricature, all the actors make an impact. Even Josh Hartnett, arguably the most wooden actor in Hollywood, is used effectively as a matinee idol charmer with a vicious secret.

The debt to Tarantino is evident throughout. Indeed, Quentin himself got to direct one grand guignol sequence where Clive Owen is driving a semi-decapitated man and a trunkload of mutilated corpses through the streets, when a traffic cop pulls him over.

The trouble is that the characters are so shallow and lacking in development that, once the visual novelty has worn off, the film becomes surprisingly boring. In the old days, “film noir” was used to explore moral choices. These characters never change their minds or agonize about anything. They are just jokey stick figures being manipulated for our amusement.

The amusement palls. There’s the same weightlessness and absence of nuance that diminished the visual charm of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. There’s no real humanity in Sin City, because there are no real humans. The geekiness takes its toll, as does the monotony. Style becomes not only its strength, but also its vice.

I wouldn’t wish to take Sin City too seriously – after all, it takes place in a parallel universe that only superficially resembles our own – but there is something sinister, even evil, in the way it casually disrespects all authority, whether political, judicial or religious.

It puts in their place a belief that extreme brutality, whether by the individual or the group, is not only justified but funny and sexy. Enemies exist to be tortured and killed as gruesomely as possible. Justice has nothing to do with the law.

The film’s view of women is just as disturbing. Women exist to be bought and sold. They are prized only for their beauty. And they are not to be trusted. The profoundly misogynist values underpinning Sin City are the same sleazy ones that lay beneath Basic Instinct and Showgirls.

And let there be no doubt about it: this film adores violence. It treats its numerous mutilations, castrations, decapitations, killings and acts of torture with voyeuristic reverence. It treats revenge as the basic human right. It has a detached, even perverted view of other people’s suffering. It doesn’t just laugh at the violence, it gets a sexual kick from it.

Easily the vilest aspect of Sin City is its cheerfully sick and ultimately sickening delight in its own callousness. Watching this latest, flashiest ever manifestation of unfeeling, yob culture, I couldn’t help thinking of those young American guards who so casually humiliated and tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Their mentality is precisely the one that Rodriguez so glibly celebrates in his movie. So please forgive me if I, for one, fail to cheer.

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