DVD Review Of Sin City
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/20/06
Gratuitous violence works in films only if the non-gratuitous moments are good. This cardinal lesson of filmmaking was apparently lost on style over substance filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who tried adapting the black and white comic books (or graphic novels as geeks call them) of the Sin City series by Frank Miller (billed as co-director). Miller is viewed in the comics trade as something akin to the William Shakespeare of the medium, for his art, and re-visioning of stale comic book characters like Marvel’s Daredevil and DC’s Batman, are considered seminal moments in keeping the industry afloat, just as it seemed to be teetering into irrelevance in the early 1980s. And, there were great strides made in the medium. Miller’s Dark Knight take on Batman inspired Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, and that influence can still be felt in last year’s Batman Begins. However, something went terribly wrong along the way. Perhaps, now that Miller is a fiftysomething geek, what was seen as cool at thirty years old can now be properly seen as psychosexual impairment. His tales have grown fat with banality, and what was revolutionary a quarter century ago now reeks of unwitting self-parody.
Reputedly this film follows the story arcs of four self-contained stories from the Sin City comic books, and does so frame by frame, which begs the question, why adapt it, if there will be no taking of the stories to another level? Even worse, where the earlier incarnations of Miller’s tales deliberately undermined clichés, this film indulges them, from the film’s opening line. It’s as if one could still seriously take a Mike Hammer approach as serious drama. Adding gory violence does not make the basic tale any less silly. This is the film’s basic flaw- it acts as if we are to deal with what it offers in a serious vein. Unlike, say, the tongue in cheek Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, another film that was totally studio shot, this film has no humor. It’s also not scary, nor anything but repetitive and dull. That earlier film had humor, a story, and put a different spin on the genre it was take from- movie serials. This film only has somber musclebound morons and scantily clad prostitutes that recapitulate scenes that only have resonance on a page, where each reader can give weight and intonation to the aspects of the story that interests them.
Yet, to even state this film has a story accepts the claim that it has a plot, or a purpose, in its astoundingly bad screenplay, besides upping sales of action figures for geeky wannabe he-men. The only of the tales that even approaches comic book camp is the one starring Mickey Rourke as a buzz-cut killer named Marv, who is set up by a cannibalistic cult for the murder of a prostitute he loves. He avenges the dead girl, kills the killers, and gets fried in the electric chair. In the other tale, a murderer named Dwight (Clive Owen) tries to defend his lover (Brittany Murphy) from a brutal cop (Benicio Del Toro), who ends up being killed by Gestapo-like hookers, led by Gail (Rosario Dawson), who carry uzis. The longest tale, and one which is broken into two halves, follows a cop near retirement, named Hartigan (Bruce Willis), who rescues an eleven year old girl named Nancy from a kidnapper whom he castrates, only to find out his father is a Senator. He goes to jail for eight years, then looks for her. She’s now a stripper (Jessica Alba), and the Senator’s son has somehow morphed into a yellow-skinned serial killer. In the end, Hartigan kills the killer, then suicides, to prevent the Senator from taking revenge. The film then ends with a vignette of a suave killer who opened the film, now trying to smooth talk one of the hookers from the middle story.
Yet, not one character elicits sympathy nor interest, because the film, and the comic books, are all blatant ripoffs of material, characters, and settings that have been done better in better films. Simply put, although Sin City is almost as fantastic a screen spectacle as Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, it is in no way, shape, nor form, as good a film. The black and white nighttime cityscapes, speckled with color- blood, lips, and a few other highlights- is impressive, but that’s it.
As for the DVD features, this set contains only a blasé eight minute featurette- not even the film’s trailer. This is in perfect keeping with the very essence of the film- dullness. Twenty years ago there was a kitschy fun to Sylvester Stallone’s and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s violence-laced films. Now, such films are not even at a comic book level, they’re just pallid imitations of them. Perhaps the only thing of interest revealed, for what it’s worth, is that Sin City was filmed with entirely green screens vs. Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow’s blue screens.
Which brings me to the question lurking behind this film- why would a man
in his fifties be so enraptured by such childish and pointless violence? It
certainly is not a comment on society, nor does it parody it. All it does is
play into the hands of moralistic prudes who decry it for its violence while
overlooking its real sins: being banal, boring, puerile, and pointless, even as
it is hopelessly derivative. In a clash between Mike Hammer and Marv, Mike wins
easily, for Spillane was an underrated stylist capable of great poetry, while Sin
City is just a ripoff of a really bad comic book, whose idea of great
writing and wit consists of one of the prostitute’s names- a Japanese Ninja-
being Miho, as in ‘me ho’, or ‘my whore', in racist Oriental dialect, or
the utterance of such lines as, ‘The
Valkyrie at my side is laughing with the pure bloodthirsty joy of the
slaughter,’ or ‘When his eyes go dead, the hell I send him to will seem like
heaven after what I’ve done to him,’ spoken in gruff monotones devoid of any
campy self-awareness of its banality. In what would have been a masterstroke had
there been any true creativity, and self-deprecation, shown in the film, the
part of the brutally sleazy Senator is played by Powers Boothe, who looks and
sounds eerily like actor Stacy Keach- the definitive Mike Hammer. Alas, the
classically trained Keach is not in the film, I guess to his credit.
The determination of Rodriguez to make a great ‘comic book film’ is at odds with the primary thrust any filmmaker owes an audience; making a great film, for all media crossovers must adapt to their new medium’s rules. Comic books are two dimensional and static. Transferring their conventions to film becomes inane, at best, for all suspension of disbelief is lost with the loss of certain realities that sustain the comic book medium, but look phony in film. Now, were this an homage to German Expressionism it might work, but it’s not, because even that highly stylized form was born of the filmic medium, not comic books, and follows different rules. This hollow mimetic approach affects every part of the film, and negatively so. For example, why are the Mickey Rourke and Benicio Del Toro characters forced to wear prosthetics when their characters are so off the rack? Merely to look more comic booky? What’s the point? To be edgy? This film is the very antithesis of edgy, for truly edgy films are not vehicles designed to dismay senior citizens, but enliven the young- who’ve already seen much better than this in decades of martial arts films, of the sort ‘guest director’ Quentin Tarantino pays homage to in his films, as well as truly original and well written films like Dark City.
This film was much lauded, even by critics like Roger Ebert who should know better (although, let’s face it- he thinks Steven Spielberg understands storytelling), but often critics fall into the same trap that average filmgoers do, mistaking visual excellence with overall excellence. I don’t. Sin City is too cartoonish to seriously interest, yet not cartoonish enough to amuse….Of course, this means a sequel’s coming.
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