Viewing “Sin City” is like being riddled by fluorescent ink pellets during a frenzied paint-ball ambush. Mayhem-master Robert Rodriguez has abandoned the cuddly, socially redeeming flavor of his “Spy Kids” franchise to helm a nasty helping of “gore noir.” Keep the kids at home for this one, where faces are splattered in blood, limbs are shucked like corn husks, and child molesters are tamed with bullets to the crotch.
A reflection of Rodriguez’ modesty, the first credit to flash across the screen belongs to Frank Miller, creator of the beautifully violent, strikingly surreal graphic novels on which “Sin City” is based. Miller shares a directing credit with Rodriguez, so it’s no surprise that the film adapts his hard-boiled, corrupt stories and characters with a pulpy, complimentary sheen.
In a blatant steal from Pulp Fiction, “Sin City” discards traditional chronology. We’re pulled back through time, then punted into the future, often recognizing faces and places from other story strands. Like desperate gumshoes, we follow several slug trails leading to various evasive lowlifes.
And in “Sin City,” lowlifes are the rule, not the exception. Even the heroes of Miller’s decaying world are callous, damaged men who have all fallen victim to Clare Booth Luce’s declaration that no good deed goes unpunished. Take Hardigan (Bruce Willis), an overcoat-covered cop forced into early retirement by a “bum ticker.” But a final quest to save an 11-year old girl from a merciless pervert proves his undoing. As the cynical rules of noir require, Hardigan is framed for the very crime he has prevented. But all is not lost. Nancy, the lass he rescues, escapes harm and writes to Hardigan while he festers in prison for eight years.
Equally world-weary is Marv (Mickey Rourke), a hard-as-nails lug whose prominent chin and faceful of Band-Aids suggest Kirk Douglas after a bad shave. Marv beds a blonde dame named Goldie, who “smells like angels oughtta smell.” Much to the smitten hulk’s dismay, Goldie is found dead the following morning. We follow Marv on his search for the killer, meeting corrupt politicians and nude, lesbian parole officers along the way. Through it all, this unstable psychotic must acquire medication to curb his worsening hallucinations.
Things get uglier. Marv must confront an “Ichi”-style serial killer (played effectively against type by none other than Elijah “Frodo” Wood), whose nerdy sweaters and illuminated, “Powder”-styled shades mask his sick compulsion to decapitate women and keep their heads as trophies. Rodriguez and Miller take us down plenty of other dark streets, including a showdown between Closer star Clive Owen and long-haired, scarecrow-lanky Benicio Del Toro for the affections of h***y barmaid Brittany Murphy.
Let me get the bad stuff out of the way first. With so many characters spinning on this high-speed carousel, “Sin City” sometimes fails to dig beneath the surface of its charismatic faces. Michael Madsen shows up as Harrigan’s partner, but aside from looking cool in his uniquely squinty-eyed kind of way, the actor is given little to do. Meanwhile, Rodriguez slams down the sledgehammer with so much brutal, punishing force, there’s no room to breathe. Even the “Kill Bill” films, which stylistically have much in common with “Sin City,” gave us calm before each violent action storm. Tarantino provided a suspenseful delay in the fireworks, so that when the mayhem did hit fever pitch, it was all the more overwhelming. In “Sin City,” so much visceral muscle is flexed so much of the time, it becomes numbing.
All the same, “Sin City” is a gas. We’ve seen creative marriages between black & white and color film before (“Schindler’s List” comes to mind), but never like this. Rodriguez starts with a black and white canvas, and introduces intense dashes of color. A woman’s eyes and dress are accented with frosty blue and rose red. Indeed, red shows up a lot in “Sin City,” usually as torrents of crimson blood.
And what an electric cast! Mickey Rourke completely embodies the role of Marv, a Hellboy style waste case with a thing for stylish jackets and blonde vamps. He gets the film’s best lines. “A shrink tried to analyze me once,” he recalls, “but he got too scared.” Willis comes close, expressing his character’s self-doubt by admitting he “feels like a palsy victim doing brain surgery with a pipe wrench.” Rutger Hauer shows up briefly as a corrupt cardinal, resembling Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now,” and hotties Jessica Alba and Rosario Dawson raise blood pressure as street-savvy femme fatales.
“Sin City” has the visual kick of a roman candle. Abandoned factories, Oceanside docks, and sleazy strip clubs come to vibrant life, colors blooming like tulips in a garden of black and white. However, roller-coasters are only fun with a build-up and a wind-down. Otherwise, even the most jaded thrill-seekers will eventually want off. “Sin City” is like that. It doesn’t know when to take a break.
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