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Sin City (2005)

by on 2011/03/17

“An explosion that blasts away the dull gray years…”

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It doesn’t happen often, but I feel surprised and vindicated when it does: a director returning to “fix” a flawed effort. Leaving aside any George Lucas cliches, I’ve come across a few movies with this revisionist impulse: Some Kind of Wonderful, Blood Simple, and now Sin City.

Robert Rodriguez, like David Lynch and Kevin Smith, is a director for whom I have great affection despite a mixed reaction to his work. I first saw Sin City during its theatrical release. I neither liked nor disliked it overall. It polarized me. I was entranced by its style, yet repulsed by its content.

Since that viewing I’ve never thought to revisit it. When I began investigating prospects for this month’s articles, however, it appeared on several lists of so-called neo-noirs. I also checked out technical reviews and found it was widely considered an excellent example of a reference-quality Blu-ray. All signs, it seemed, pointed to yes.

Basin “Sin” City provides a backdrop, both figuratively and literally, for a cast of dozens, playing out a non-linear handful of hard-boiled crime vignettes. The major players — those with their own voice-overs — include Josh Hartnett (30 Days of Night), Bruce Willis (Die Hard), Mickey Rourke (Angel Heart), and Clive Owen (Children of Men).

To varying degrees, they play a limited spectrum of smokers in trench coats, tough guys, scarred near-apes with gruff, gravelly voices, chivalrous nearly to a fault. Not to mention unnecessarily, for their world is filled out by attractive, assertive women. If the who’s who of actresses fill painfully traditional roles, then at least they do so with conventions exaggerated, twisted, or subverted into something nearly new.

Key players include Jessica Alba (Machete), Devon Aoki (2 Fast 2 Furious), Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls), Rosario Dawson (Death Proof), Carla Gugino (Spy Kids, Threshold, Watchmen), Jaime King (Bulletproof Monk), Brittany Murphy (8 Mile), Marley Shelton (Planet Terror, Pleasantville). Other familiar names: Powers Boothe (Tombstone), Benicio del Toro (The Usual Suspects), Michael Clarke Duncan (Daredevil, 2001’s Planet of the Apes), Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner), Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs, Species), Nick Stahl (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), and Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings)

From the scope of the cast, you may correctly assume a lot is packed into the running. Assassinations, kidnapping, protection, and revenge. Good cops, bad cops, chases, fights, honour and double-crosses. Nudity, violence, foul mouths, and fouler ideas. Nearly everything you’d expect from a half-dozen B flicks is available here.

Aside from any concerns about the unsparing subject matter, I had little to critique about this anthology. I did find it slowed down considerably during the fourth (Clive Owen) and fifth (Bruce Willis) segments . Whether that lull had to do with the segments themselves, their overall placement, or fatigue, I don’t know for sure. I suspect I simply had enough after the first few episodes. Although I very much enjoy shows like Johnny Staccato and Peter Gunn, I can’t sit through episode after episode for very long at a stretch.

However, “too much of a good thing” is not necessarily a bad problem to have. Co-directors Frank Miller* and Robert Rodriguez strike a good balance between hard boiled and ironic. While there’s no true narrative frame or any substantial flashback, the anthology format and nonlinearity help to fill the mental gymnastic quota.

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find it lacking in the conventions of film noir. Prevalent high contrast black and white, interesting angles, prominent shadowing and silhouettes. Urban settings, often by night, precipitation and lightning. Tone, themes, plots, and players, all written and scored with awe inspiring proficiency in a first-time noir endeavour.

Is it perfect? No, but risks pay off more often than not. Most anomalies break the rules to achieve an intended effect. Backgrounds employed in the manner of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow sometimes look unreal, particularly when they’re blurred to cover their own artifice.

(Film noir frequently employs a deeper focus. How about sharpening the backgrounds and using heavier “grain” to cover the disparity between reality and virtuality? Such an approach might also mitigate the incongruous “glossy black and white”.)

On the other hand, for every nitpick, I can summon a windfall. A digital backlot allows for impractical or impossible scenarios. Imaginary settings, surprising perspectives, novel treatments, selective colouring, and innovative “camera” moves all become possible in this realm.

But, lest I imply there’s nothing more than stylings over substance, there’s more on offer than just eye candy. Crime stories have always skirted the edges of our comfort zones, but Miller and Rodriguez practically obliterate them. They tackle extreme subject matter more directly than would have been done even in Pre-Code Hollywood. They confront us with taboos which may yet offend the less depraved among us.

Language, nudity, and violence, are exceptionally harsh. Children — rare in vintage noir — are present, even prominent, and victimized here. Cannibalism plays into one subplot. Unflushed toilets appear three times, a frequency that gives me pause.

Similarly, some touches seem present less for any legitimate purpose than petty schoolboy shock value. A single filthy stall in Desperado was memorable, still . . . three toilet jokes here? Hardly incidental, but a pattern. Next, what about Miho’s shuriken? Why is a “good guy” using weapons shaped like swastikas? Finally, why do we need to know details about the children the Yellow Bastard has tortured to death? Did he not seem evil enough before he clarified their suffering?

Ultimately, I felt my original reaction still held true. I began my second viewing believing I’d been wrong in judging it harshly before. The style is positively seductive, as distinctive as it is true to noir conventions, the apotheosis of expressionism. Nevertheless, in time it ground me down, wore me out, and stylish kinetics alone could not redeem it.

I realized something I hadn’t before: as much as I found Sin City an interesting challenge, I think I need to consume it in smaller, more focused glimpses. That’s why I find Rodriguez’s “recut, extended, and unrated” version an interesting idea, separating each portion into a freestanding unit . The “unified” version I’ve seen twice now is the original theatrical one and, as impressive as I find it, I hope my next viewing will find the revisions better realizing its potential.

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* I should point out Robert Rodriguez insisted on sharing his directorial credit with Frank Miller, creator of the original comics on which Sin City is based. Miller also created the compelling 300 and a disappointing interpretation of The Spirit.

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Rated R for adult situations, disturbing scenes, language, nudity, and violence

124 minutes (theatrical version)

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