Frank Miller's Sin City
****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A
starring Jessica Alba, Benicio Del Toro, Brittany Murphy, Clive Owen
screenplay by Robert Rodriguez, based on the graphic novels by Frank Miller
directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez
by Walter Chaw Until Frank Miller's Sin City (hereafter Sin City), maverick Mexican director Robert Rodriguez frustrated the hell out of me: here's this guy with all the talent in the world--an eye, an ear, an internal metronome as unerring as a clock tick--making incoherent movies literally without finished screenplays. Falling off high wires without nets and trying to look cool doing it--it ain't smooth, man, it's arrogance and it's misplaced. I thought he'd spent himself on flotsam like the last two Spy Kids flicks, thought he'd really screwed the pooch on a fiasco like Once Upon a Time In Mexico, on which he mistook Sergio Leone's formalist genre Diaspora for a mess of ideas trailing camera flourishes. But here, right before he unleashes some 3-D thing about a shark boy, Rodriguez slides in a movie for which he resigned from the Directors' Guild of America just so he could credit comic book legend Frank Miller as his co-director. Here, in Sin City, is what Robert Rodriguez can do with brutal, draconian structure (what's harsher than the cell of a comic-book panel?); here, finally, is productive fruit from his reputation as a rebel without a crew. Here's Sin City down low, on the QT, and very, hush hush: the most anti-Hollywood Hollywood picture since Kill Bill, and a film that, likewise, feels like some kind of miracle it was ever produced, much less released.
Three story arcs from Miller's astonishing Sin City comic book series are recreated in Sin City faithfully, meticulously, even, when not being embellished by the author himself: "The Hard Goodbye," with Mickey Rourke as golem Marv (and Carla Gugino (brave and mostly in the altogether) as his lesbian parole officer/dealer) out to avenge the death of a hooker who showed him an instant of kindness; "The Big Fat Kill," with good-guy serial killer Dwight (Clive Owen) involved in covering up the murder of a corrupt cop (Benicio Del Toro) by a gang of Amazonian hookers; and "That Yellow Bastard," featuring straight-arrow cop with a bad ticker Hartigan (Bruce Willis, whose first words to Miller on set were: "About that script... I want more of the stuff from the comics put back in"). Single-handedly raising the comic-book genre to respectability with his Batman opus The Dark Knight Returns (when you hear someone talk knowingly about the "graphic novel," be aware that at some level they're talking about Frank Miller), Sin City single-handedly resurrects hope that impossible works like Miller's Batman epics (Dark Knight Returns or Year One) or 300 can be brought to the screen as something both faithful and sexy--hope that was fast-fleeting just a few weeks ago with the simpering, compromised adaptation of Hellblazer, Constantine. The biggest surprise might be that Sin City is a product, in all its grit and glory, of the same green-screen process that produced the niftily antiseptic Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
Sin City feels like love even though it's steeped in the mean noir of Jules Dassin's Night and the City and, oddly enough, the prosthetic nightmare of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy. Its heroes are darker than pitch and its villains are nightmares: a yellow goblin (Nick Stahl) with a weakness for little girls and an eyeless/soulless cannibal (Elijah Wood) with claws for fingernails (and an unusual trophy collection) live amongst mostly invisible puppet masters--the senators, bishops (Rutger Hauer), crime lords (Michael Clarke Duncan), and police captains--who are the source of all the city's misery. Though there's a band of killer whores (Devon Aoki (wisely given no lines), Brittany Murphy, Rosario Dawson, and Jessica Alba (unwisely given a few)) at the centre of the film, like the best of films noir, the heart of Sin City is its obsession with the cult of masculinity. It takes a close look at the myth of the hardboiled antihero and finds its rewards questionable and its punishments cruel, expressing its displeasure in castration metaphors (beheading, backfiring) and literal castrations as the men, varying levels of brutal and animalistic, square off against one another in an almost primordial struggle. A scene staged at a tar pit with one unfortunate suspended from a dinosaur sculpture at night (when else?) during a rainstorm (what else?) could be the defining moment of the picture.
It's all about sack-size and the lizard brain--and as a film, it's something like pure aggression and machismo, freebased on a filthy spoon and shunted into an open vein. An eight ball of posturing, the savage Sin City is puerility at its most exhilarating. It feels insular, hermetically sealed, and magnified to the point of opera and caricature--what else to think of a grimy pulp piece that calls one character Lancelot (King Arthur himself, Clive Owen, demoted) and another Galahad? If Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and Carroll John Daly were still jamming their roscoes in some patsy's buttonhole, they'd be doing it like this. Nasty, uncompromising, an instant cult classic, Sin City is most definitely not for every taste (were it not so stylized, it would surely have earned an X for grue), but it is that once-a-year reminder, hot and dangerous, of why it is a lot of us started going to the movies in the first place. Originally published: April 1, 2005.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Buena Vista brings the theatrical and "recut, extended, unrated" versions of Frank Miller's Sin City to Blu-ray in a two-disc set. Tech specs--1.85:1, 1080p video, D-BOX-encoded 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio--are the same for both cuts. I remember the film as being blotchy and riddled with artifacts on the big screen, but the BD image has all the purity of an uncompressed digital file and the back cover even alludes to some kind of restoration effort. That, alas, is a blessing and a curse: Sin City undiluted is pretty potent stuff, almost profoundly rich in contrast and detail; as Robert Rodriguez says in one of the extras, this is the rare black-and-white movie that actually delivers on the "black." Yet the transfer is also sort of cheaply perfect at times, nowhere more so than during the opening credits, which look computer-generated in a way more suited to a DVD supplement or PowerPoint slideshow than to a major motion picture. (Moreover, this can create a bit of cognitive dissonance with the film's blockbuster soundmix, however cartoonishly discrete it often is.) Still, it sparks a whole new level of appreciation for Sin City's formal rigor--the temptation to freeze-frame proves irresistible.
Joining the DTS option on the theatrical version is a comparably dynamic and surprisingly rousing audience-participation track recorded at a screening in Austin, Texas (presented in DD 5.1, it puts a slight reverb on the dialogue that really makes you feel like you're there), as well as two feature-length commentaries that each pair Rodriguez with a different collaborator--first Miller, second Quentin Tarantino. Not surprisingly, the generally starstruck Miller keeps getting distracted by the babes (you can practically hearing him slapping his meat to Rosario Dawson), leaving Tarantino--who mostly stays mum as a courtesy until the film arrives at the segment he partially helmed, "The Big Fat Kill"--to pick up the slack. The Spielberg to Rodriguez's Lucas, Tarantino forcibly pulls the conversation out of Rodriguez's navel by raising the spectres of things external to Sin City. For Tarantino, a bigger reference than Miller's art in realizing his scenelet, a hallucinatory drive in the rain, was Suspiria, and he reveals that he reconceived a piece of voiceover as a monologue for Clive Owen to deliver in the car next to Benicio Del Toro--a moment that stands out for briefly liberating the picture from its starchy adherence to the source material.
Moving on to the second disc, "Recut Stories" compartmentalizes the individual episodes of Sin City and, when watched in play-all mode, reorganizes them in a linear fashion that miraculously manages to be less coherent than the jumbled chronology of the release print. Multiple credit scrolls bloat the total running time by at least ten minutes, and the only "extended" footage I recognized consisted of Carla Gugino's character popping up in "That Yellow Bastard" as Hartigan's lawyer. Stick with the original cut. The bulk of the supplementary material likewise resides on this platter, starting with "Kill 'Em Good: Interactive Comic Book", a BD-Java game in which you navigate Marv's getaway car. (Very poorly, if you're me.) "How It Went Down: Convincing Frank Miller to Make the Film" (6 mins.) contains a lot of crossover with the aforementioned yakkers, as Rodriguez for the umpteenth time conflates comic books and cinema and recounts the fateful day he flew Miller in for a test shoot that left the author not just impressed but eager to co-direct as well. "Special Guest Director: Quentin Tarantino" (7 mins.) is again a distillation of commentary content, albeit glossy and insubstantial compared to the real deal, while "A Hard Top with a Decent Engine: The Cars of Sin City" (8 mins.) invites transportation co-ordinator Cecil D. Evans to recap how and which classic vehicles were acquired for the production. Like Evans, the craftspeople interviewed in "Booze, Broads and Guns: The Props of Sin City" (11 mins.) stayed impressively true to Miller's sometimes-dashed-off panels, at one point interpreting a hasty squiggle as a Mongolian bow that was then commissioned from a master bowmaker. We discover, too, that the Miller-designed guns from Robocop 2 wound up in the film almost incidentally alongside Kill Bill's Hattori Hanzo swords. In "Making the Monsters: Special Effects Make-Up" (9 mins.), Greg Nicotero of KNB sheds light on, among other things, a blue-painted Yellow Bastard (who rather distressingly suggests a live-action Smurf) and the prosthetics for Mickey Rourke's Marv; and in "Trenchcoats & Fishnets: The Costumes of Sin City" (8 mins.), wardrobe designer Nina Proctor discusses the limitations that were placed on her by the film's composite lighting techniques. The fetishistic aspects of the costumes are broached, too--how could they not be?
A final subsection titled "Rodriguez Special Features" houses a 12-minute "15-Minute Flic School" most interesting for showing what was previously told, such as the fact that sometimes castmembers who appear to be in a scene, nay, a shot, together were filmed separately months apart and splitscreened in post. (Rourke and Elijah Wood, who fight each other on screen, never once crossed paths on set.) Rodriguez says the technology is now so democratized that we could do this shit on our laptops, but that's a little disingenuous, isn't it, considering the rest of us don't also have Josh Hartnett on speed-dial.
The "All Green Screen Version (12 mins.) is the entire movie in colour, as it looked before FX, sped up by a factor of ten; it's the death blow in a two-disc-long process of wilful demystification--and surely the first stop on any horny teenager's search for Sin City's T&A unfiltered. "The Long Take" (18 mins.) is an unexpurgated outtake from the Tarantino-directed car sequence that had me transfixed from beginning to end. Watch as the performances from a loose Del Toro and a tightly-coiled Owen take shape amid technical snafus like the rig that's supposed to emit smoke through a "hole" in Del Toro's neck. Occasionally a black tarp is inexplicably draped over the lens, interrupting our trance. (Curious that Rodriguez, who does an introductory spiel, chose Tarantino's scene instead of one of his myriad own.) The less said about "Sin City: Live in Concert" (9 mins.), a jam session with Bruce Willis and the Accelerators, the better, leading us to an instalment of "10-Minute Cooking school" (6 mins.) wherein Rodriguez teaches us how to prepare breakast tacos. I imagine they're delicious. Teaser and theatrical trailers for Sin City (SD only, unfortunately, like all of this disc's video-based bonus features) round out the film-related supps; HD trailers for The Proposal, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and the Blu-ray editions of "Lost" seasons one and two fall under a "Sneak Peeks" heading and close out the package. Originally published: May 6, 2009.