by David Cornelius
The paradox of “Sin City” is that it’s an outstandingly inventive film that’s actually not that inventive at all. Every one of director Robert Rodriguez’ visuals come direct from Frank Miller’s graphic novels, so much so that the film strains to copy point for point images from the books. The result: the movie has a look that crackles - yet it’s the work of a copy.This is not to say that “Sin City” fails. On the contrary, part of its success comes from the fan boy glee that fills every corner of every frame. Rodriguez set out to make a comic book brought to life, and he succeeded, treating Miller’s work as storyboards and doing so with such faithfulness that anyone familiar with the book series will be floored at the notion of Miller’s masterful artwork painstakingly recreated in real life. Miller is arguably the best comic book maker around (he’s also responsible for the groundbreaking Batman effort “The Dark Knight Returns” and the savage reader fave “Ronin”), his work on his “Sin City” series an impressive feat of artistic storytelling. Rodriguez couldn’t have found a better artist to emulate. (Miller’s so responsible for the movie’s look that Rodriguez gives him a directorial credit.)
"Yes, it's a good movie. No, it's not a great movie."
The strange thing, however, is that by creating a digital world reminiscent of the exaggerated look of Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy,” Rodriguez has made something that’s more cartoony than the source material ever was. Sure, the books were full of graphic novel exaggeration, but they remained grounded in a dark, heavy seriousness. The film, in forming a world that looks as though it’s a live action comic book, occasionally drops the seriousness. Physics is put on hold - punched characters fly across the street in gee-isn’t-this-like-the-funny-papers hyperbole. A handful of cast members (most notably the distractingly bad Brittany Murphy) treat the dialogue like parody, pumping out their lines as though they’re in a film noir spoof. This decision detracts from the intended tone of the piece: hard, cold, mean.
Thankfully, the leading players keep their cool. Clive Owen, Bruce Willis, and, most notably of all, Mickey Rourke all treat their roles with deadly seriousness. Unlike Murphy, who turns her character into a caricature, these three actors help sell the film’s comic book style by passing it off as legit. Each stars in his own short story - the three are woven together following the “Pulp Fiction” template of time-overlapping storytelling - in which a wrong is avenged with blood and death. These three tales push themselves into outlandish territories, yet the solid performances of all three lend the script both an emotional edge and an unlimited supply of ice-cold cool.
Because if “Sin City” is nothing else, it’s oh so cool. Rodriguez picks up on Miller’s feel for classic film noir slang and technique, the result being a film that lets us hear cool actors spit out cool dialogue in cool narration. After all, what’s not to love about Clive Owen growling in voice-over about some crazy dame? Cool.
And yet, this is a shallow cool. I keep coming back to “Pulp Fiction,” which earned its title by delivering the cheap, tawdry thrills a pulp provides, at the expense of a more meaningful character depth. “Sin City” follows the same design; whereas the books had time to fill in some passion and logic behind its characters’ actions, the movie, which has to plow on at lightning speed in order to fit three stories into its two-hour timeframe, drops the greater depths. Rodriguez reveals a knowledge for one of film noir’s best parts - the slick slang and bitter attitudes - but he forgets that behind the best noirs, there’s a level of humanity. At least “Pulp Fiction” gave its antiheroes time to chill, to win the viewer over; “Sin City” has no time for such pleasantries. It’s a more extreme pulp, gritty, nonstop, no time for plot when there’s action to be had.
How odd that a film intended to faithfully replicate Miller’s work would leave out some of the best stuff. I doubt fanboys would have objected to an extra thirty minutes or so in the running time, which would have given the viewer something more to the characters. As it is, everyone here’s a blank slate. The cast performs the action and says the dialogue, but there’s no broader story under them to kick in the extra oomph.
As a result, everything whips by all too quickly. Rodriguez doesn’t provide enough time for the audience to soak it all in - only Willis’ character gets some development time, but that’s because he’s in prison with nothing else to do. There’s no time here to learn more about the girls of “old town” (demoted from key players in the books to meaningless extras in the film), or the backstory that links the Clive Owen and Rosario Dawson characters (creating an awkward sense that we’re missing one or two key scenes), or the underlying reasons for why anybody’s doing anything. We’re too busy getting tossed around from one cool shot to the next, and by the time we’re halfway through Rourke’s sequence, we’re too tired from trying to keep up.
Of course, Rourke’s performance is so remarkable, with so much raw power blasting through all those thick layers of makeup, that the manic ride is worth the trip. “Sin City” is a movie that’s all about attitude, and Rourke delivers in spades. As does Willis, Owen, and a particularly demented Benicio Del Toro, who pops by as a jilted ex with a voice that sounds like Dr. John swallowed Wolfman Jack’s razorblades. But really, this is Rourke’s show, and he shines.
But again, it’s all too superficial. Rodriguez spends far too much time trying to emulate the look of the comics that he ignores things like pacing, character, and story. It’s that paradox again. The digital enhancements that bring the black and white world of “Sin City” to life, with its carefully placed splashes of color, makes for an eye-popping, jaw-dropping visual feast. Yet it’s not inventive at all, really, as Rodriguez is merely aping designs already created.
And where there’s paradox, there’s irony. Rodriguez strains to stick too close to the source material in order to create a vibrate cinematic experience - but sticking so close ultimately lessens the cinematic experience. The movie’s best moments are when the filmmaker allows himself to deviate from the books (a winking epilogue, a witty “Die Hard” reference). Had Rodriguez allowed himself the chance to open up his film, to cut loose the restraints of the make-it-match-frame-by-frame visuals, to spend more time with the script and less time with the camera, he might have transformed “Sin City” from a good movie into a great one.What surprises me is just how overwhelmed so many others have become over this film. Me, I was merely whelmed. Visually, it’s amazing stuff, and the cast is first rate (a few bits of miscasting aside - Alexis Bledel is completely out of place here). It’s a fun, energetic, wild ride, loaded with fast dialogue, uncanny situations, and wicked action. But in the end, it’s an empty film, lost in its own gimmickry to truly hit as hard as it wants. A fun movie? Yes. A cool movie? You bet. But a masterpiece? Not really.
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originally posted: 04/03/05 23:24:40