Bringing Out The Dead

Frank Miller's 'Sin City' expands nationwide

Marv, the most intriguing character in the new comic book adaptation Sin City, has skin like aged leather. His massive head is lumpy with scar tissue, his nose crushed and flattened. When, after one particularly brutal beating, Marv appears with tiny bandages plastered all over his ugly mug, the joke is clear: This is a face beyond salvage. Though he absorbs a remarkable amount of punishment, Marv isn't cast from the familiar comic-book superhero mold. For one thing, he's a vicious sadist. For another, he's a bit of a loser: A drunk and a street brawler, Marv spends the semiconscious moments between fistfights ruminating on his own hyper-macho grotesqueness. He's a Terminator Charles Bukowski.

That description might also suggest the overall flavor of Sin City, a dazzling high-tech spectacle dipped in the hard-boiled poetry of the gutter. This film is actually a portmanteau of stories from Frank Miller's series of graphic novels. The first and strongest of these strands follows Marv (Mickey Rourke beneath layers of prosthetic makeup), a murderous yet weirdly sympathetic thug on a quest to avenge the death of a hooker. The second concerns a gang of prostitutes--led by Dwight (Clive Owen)--who try to avert a bloody turf war after they unwittingly butcher a crooked police officer. The final story, drawn from Miller's That Yellow Bastard, features Bruce Willis as a lone-wolf cop who's sworn to protect a stripper from a freakishly discolored psychopath. There are also small, punchy parts for Josh Hartnett, Rosario Dawson, Rutger Hauer, and Elijah Wood--who, shaking off any winsomeness that might have followed him from Middle Earth, plays a mute cannibal assassin. There's some overlap between these various subplots, but for the most part Sin City is structured as an anthology: What links its separate episodes, beyond a tendency for shockingly graphic violence, is the gothic noir style of Miller's books.

Rendered in stark black and white, Miller's fictional Basin City is a gonzo homage to the festering urban hells of pulp crime fiction. Its lowlife thugs and heat-packing dames even drive '50s hardtops and speak in James M. Cain patois. Miller's style is a catalog of filmic gestures: He adores dramatic chiaroscuro, as well as perspectives that hover malevolently over his characters. The quintessential Miller panel is pure noir: a thug's craggy face, seen in close-up and half bathed in shadow beneath the rim of a fedora. Though Miller's interest in the female form borders on fetishistic, Sin City's ladies tend either to be saints or whores. Indeed, sex, sadism, and guilt are intertwined in Miller's imagination. The film version of Sin City is appropriately brimming with kitsch Catholic iconography. One character has a crucifix-shaped scar on his forehead. And Miller himself has a cameo as a corrupt priest.

It's astonishing how precisely Sin City--codirected by Miller and Robert Rodriguez--recreates not just the look, but also the mood of Miller's books. As with last year's underrated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, almost all of Sin City's scenery is computer-generated. Sin City's look is grittier and more textured than Sky Captain's Art Deco sci-fi sets, but the two films share a glossy, hyperreal style that's both dissonant and visually arresting. Though Sin City is mostly in black and white, there are occasional slashes of color: the ruby red of a woman's lips, for instance, or the ice blue-tinted flash of a car speeding down a deserted country highway. As in Miller's novels, blood comes in spurts of startlingly bright white.

Other filmmakers have successfully transferred comic books to the screen, of course. Sam Raimi and Ang Lee, to name two recent examples, created gleaming, gravity-defying worlds for their respective superhero franchises. But Sin City is the first film that has ever felt like a comic book--simultaneously vulgar and lyrical, funny and naughty. One need only imagine the mournful mess Ang Lee would have made of this material to appreciate the difference. Rodriguez and Miller, both subversive mavericks unburdened by taste, have set their overheated adolescent fantasies loose and created true lowbrow American art. There's no getting around it: Sin City is good, dirty fun.

 
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