Frank Miller, the artist/writer who made Batman into an ageing, hard-bitten murderer in the classic Dark Knight Returns graphic novel, followed that milestone with the super-tough Sin City comic series. Robert Rodriguez has now helped him make a film of it. Sin City: the movie looks more like a comic than a film, but the big difference is that this moves. The film takes images directly from the page, but it feels very different: where the comic was still moments, the film rockets.
Three stories are loosely linked together. All have common elements. The heroes are hard bitten, ageing, violent, but honourable. They're all essentially variations on Batman from Dark Knight Returns. The stories evoke the pulp novels that informed Batman, and Miller takes inspiration from the toughest crime writers from the 40's to the 90's: (Dashiel Hammet, Mickey Spillane, James Ellroy), distilling them to their basest elements (violence, sexism, brutality). In Sin City, men are either supertough or useless wimps, women are either violent whores or victimized angels. The heroes are all on vengeance missions. They encounter extreme violence, and mete it out too. Nothing new? Wrong: it's all pumped up, like the film itself is on steroids.
This is a world that's off kilter, where things are backwards. A friend will save someone, then knock them out cold the next second. Cops come to save, then kill innocents. Decapitations feature heavily: one story features a hunt for a severed head. There's more than one castration too. It's confusing, scary, yet thrilling too. It's also cartoony, tough but deliberately not real: blood is white, and the black and white images are obviously false. Unlike Kill Bill, which was just a laugh, Sin City is nasty and dark and believes in its own code of manly honour. The morality here is the opposite of Tarantino (credited as 'special guest director').
Some actors fit into this cartoon world better than others. Roasario Dawson and Bruce Willis are perfect: their lean lines look like they've sprung to life from Miller's pen. Clive Owen works too. But Brittany Murphy is just wrong: proof that bad acting is more not less noticeable in a stylised setting.
Sin City is great, but its main problem is its very coolness. Coolness can be destroyed by laughter, and there's more than a few unintentional laughs here, where the film is trying so hard to be grim and manly that it just seems childish. But there's also something admirable about having the nerve to throw this stuff out there. The single minded, obsessive vision behind this makes it compelling. Compared with the lily-livered, made-by-committee, pleases-no-one, summer blockbuster rubbish we usually get given, Sin City is exhilarating: a broken whisky bottle instead of the usual plastic cup of warm Budweiser. 8/10
Adrian Horrocks (September 2005)
A-Z of Film Reviews