Sunday, April 17, 2005

Well, it's been a week now since I saw Sin City, and in the spirit of better late than never, here's my take.

Actually, let me preface this by recounting my impressions of Frank Miller and his work. I was right there, back in the day, when Frank Miller came along and breathed fresh air into the stale and boring Daredevil title. After years of "villain of the month" blandness, suddenly we had something vital, something different for, especially for a Marvel book. Even though, thinking back on those books (which I no longer own, sad to say) years later, I remember that I thought Miller's figure drawing was often awkward and clumsy-looking, and wasn't helped a bit by the inks of Klaus Janson, who might just by my least favorite inker the stories often read like superhero soap operatics as written by Mickey Spillane. Still, those comics left you with the impression that something worthwhile was actually happening...that there was gravity to these events, and cause-and-effect. It got a lot better when he later returned to DD with Dave Mazzuchelli, an artist whose infrequent work I loved at first sight. Ronin was Miller stretching out a bit, but I think his reach exceeded his grasp and it was a jumbled mess, mostly forgotten now. Then of course, there was the series with which he really made his rep, The Dark Knight Returns, which pretty much set the tone for everything he's done since. I liked DKR, thought it was clever and involving if heavy-handed and cynical, and innovatively drawn despite Janson's hamfisted inks. Which brings us to Sin City the comics series (I know, I've left out a couple of things), which I was a little late in picking up on. I started getting SC with the "Yellow Bastard" arc; at first I just wasn't interested. In all the samples I'd seen and the few times I'd picked up a copy of the first three limited series, it simply looked like Miller was coasting; minimal scripting with a surfeit of one-page splashes and a veritable ocean of black ink, and a very nasty and cynical tone. Plus, I just wasn't interested in the Noir genre that was its inspiration. However, by the time of Bastard, I had begun to get a bit curious after reading praise in different places so I took the plunge and did get caught up in Detective Hartigan's quest to protect Nancy Callahan, and the struggle with a truly loathsome adversary. Yeah, the tone was glum and cynical as could be, but for me it worked on a soap opera-style level. After that, I went back and picked up issues I had missed, along with the trade that collected the first series, and had pretty much the same reaction- despite the tone, I liked the concepts and characters that he had come up with to populate his City, but after a while the bleakness became wearing and the most recent SC limited series, "Hell and Back" was a grotesque mess, so I had pretty much decided to pass on any further issues in the series. Then, we got the movie.

And you know what? Sin City the movie pretty much left me with the same feeling, after I'd watched it, that the comics did- I was engaged by the sheer visual spectacle of it all, as I am with Miller's SC comic book art, which I find interesting in its extreme use of lights and darks and its composition...but after a while the brutality and cynicism became wearing and I wasn't unhappy when it was finally over. They do a great job of reproducing the comics visuals, sometimes to great effect in many instances, but sometimes it was also unintentionally funny in situations where you have cop cars literally jumping over roads or when a man jumps out of a window that seems to be at least five stories up, and lands on his feet, then bounds into a car. Some of the BDSM gear and hairstyles that the Deadly Hooker Revenge Squad were sporting (especially Rosario Dawson) just screamed 1985. At times, it's almost like watching a Roadrunner cartoon, when Marv takes clip after clip, gets hit by cars, and other assorted calamities and just needs a bunch of whited-out band-aids, or the weird silent assassin, played by Elijah Wood, gets dismembered and never screams. Stuff like this, for some reason, I can tolerate (but not all the time) in a comic...but having it shown to us in moving pictures really points out how preposterous it all is. And if I recall correctly, those old Film Noir classics of old always had their feet firmly placed on the rainy concrete sidewalks of reality. Miller's script is a mile wide and an inch deep; it's Spillane as written by a unusually intelligent 12-year-old. I'm not asking for or expecting Charlie Kaufman, mind you; but if you, like me, enjoy a little wit or subtlety in your film scripts you will be sadly disappointed. This movie is big, loud and dumb as they come.

But y'know what? Even after all that I've said, I was still entertained, visually, if not mentally. Given the fact that they're all asked to play cardboard cutouts, the actors give fine performances. Bruce Willis gives a typical low key Willis performance, Mickey Rourke plays Marv well, with a jaundiced sense of humor, under a ton of makeup, and Brittany Murphy gets to emote a little and doesn't blow it. Every one of these stories hinge on events which are compelling, no matter how far-fetched they get, and you can kinda turn off your brain and let the part of it which goes "Oooh, cool!" at explosions and fistfights and sexy girls have a blast. So to speak. And of course, again, it's visually incredible- director Robert Rodriguez manages to ape Miller's art style almost perfectly, a dubious achievement if there ever was one. Sin City is certainly an success, a new standard in comic book movies, and hopefully will lead to bigger and better things down the road- but taken on its own merits, it bludgeons you with gloom and blood and melodrama, is way too long, appeals to the baser side of people, and while I can't say that I would recommend it to just anybody, if you are disposed to be a fan of Miller, or crime noir, or brutality in general, you'll probably eat it up and ask for seconds.

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