There were a lot of reasons I was reluctant to watch this movie. I have never been a fan of Frank Miller; while it’s become fashionable in recent years to mock the comic book writer for his gloriously inept All Star Batman and Robin, I felt that his signature work, The Dark Knight Returns was also ridiculously bad, and it just took the rest of the fandom twenty years to catch up. I read a few of his Sin City graphic novels, on recommendation, and was thoroughly unimpressed. They struck me as an attempt at noir stylings without a comprehension of the writing skills that went into classic noir works. I’ll grant his use of contrast was great, but I was otherwise left with a sense that this is a comic book writer and artist who is poor at writing plots, incompetent at writing dialogue, and not particularly good at drawing either.
So why, then, would I watch the 2005 movie based on those works, especially when the two novels I’d read were among the plots the movie is based on? For starters, it has a ton of people in it. Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Benicio Del Toro, Rutger Hauer, and many, many others. And Robert Rodriguez was the primary director, and he’s been all right on other works (Quentin Tarantino is also credited with directing one scene, and Miller has co-director credit). It did well at the box office, though that’s not always a solid indicator (Frank Miller’s 300 was similarly successful, and was terrible.) It also had critical success; Roger Ebert gave it four stars, and it’s at 78% on RottenTomatoes.com. And every so often someone would recommend it, and I’d demur, and they’d act like I was judging it unfairly. Personally, I think having read the stories was a fair way to pre-judge it, but hey; maybe it translated better to film than its original medium. At least if I watched it nobody could remotely claim I didn’t have an informed opinion on it. Plus, you know, it was available to watch free, so all I was risking was my time.
Sometimes risks pay off, sometimes they do not.
Bruce Willis’s stomach hurts. So does mine after watching this.
Three plots run through Sin City, from the graphic novels The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill, and That Yellow Bastard, plus a vignette starring Josh Hartnett to set the mood of the film. That mood is “bleak”, incidentally, and overwrought with melodramatic narration. In the first story, psychotic thug Marv (Mickey Rourke) has a brief fling with a prostitute named Goldie (Jaime King), and awakens to find her murdered. He goes on a quest to find and kill her murderer. In the second story, Clive Owen plays Dwight, a man who chases a scumbag (Benicio Del Toro) into the “Oldtown” section of Basin City, where events unfold that run the risk of starting a war between the corrupt police department and the prostitutes that enforce their own laws in the area. In the third story, which wraps around the other two, Bruce Willis plays Detective John Hartigan, who saves a young girl from a child-molesting serial killer, and then years later has to save her again; by that time, she has grown up and become a pole dancer, played by Jessica Alba.
You may notice a few trends in the plots. They all play out much the same, the different acts all feel the same, and the basic roles are the same. There’s a hard-nosed male lead who is anything but a conventional hero, who is perfectly content to brutalize any bad guys who get in his way, and the quest is always to protect or avenge a woman, who is always a prostitute or stripper. I won’t claim any sort of original insight in this observation; I’m hardly the first to point it out, and I’m sure I won’t be the last. But Frank Miller, whether it’s his own original stories, or his takes on classic comic book characters, seems pathologically unable to deviate these templates. I don’t think I’m much of a prude in my movie-watching, but it does seem more than a little silly that every female character is treated like a sex object first and foremost.
It’s as though Frank Miller noticed both “woman” and “whore” were 5-letter words starting with “w”, and became unable to distinguish them.
Several of the actors turn in decent jobs, but my enjoyment of their performances was greatly hindered by the lines they were spouting. It’s corny, it’s overly melodramatic, and it winds up sounding like a parody of old noir stories, except that Miller is apparently dead serious. The plots don’t help much, either. Either Marv’s story or Hartigan’s would have worked on their own (Dwight’s I’m not so sure on.) But put it all together and it’s just too much… maybe I just don’t have a dark enough side, or maybe I’m too jaded, but you start piling bleak stories one after another, and sooner or later I’m saying “oh, give it a rest, already.” That there’s no goodness in this world, that every character is not just flawed but fundamentally broken, is too much to take seriously, and while I don’t shy away from violence in my films it takes more than that to impress me.
There is one praiseworthy thing about the film, and that’s the cinematography. The technique of shooting it mostly in black and white, with occasional contrast boosts and spot colors, makes for a visually striking film, and most of it works really well. Most of it. Unfortunately, while it’s sometimes used to great effect (making Jaime King’s Goldie seem otherworldly), it’s also sometimes wasted, or just doesn’t come across well. For example, Clive Owen’s shoes are given the spot color treatment, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it. They’re just a pair of red Converse, and there’s nothing special about them, or the way they’re used in the film. Attention is drawn, but once drawn is given nothing worth paying attention to.
Spot color on the eyes makes you wonder what thoughts are going on behind them. Spot color on the shoes makes you think, “Hey, nice shoes.”
A more unfortunate failure is with the title character of the That Yellow Bastard segment. The bright vivid yellow is certainly eye catching, but it’s also cartoony, and makes it hard to take the character or the segment seriously. And when his blood is splattered around, it doesn’t look like yellow blood, it just looks like paint. It’s a nice idea, it just doesn’t work when the blood isn’t blood-colored. (It works fine in scenes involving normal human blood.)
I watched Sin City because people kept telling me it wasn’t the turkey I expected it to be. But it was. Sin City is a comically bad film, whose sole redeeming value is in a striking visual style that isn’t even always used to best effect.