Sunday, April 03, 2005

Sin City: Really good, staggeringly close to great

Sin City, the cinematic adaptation of Frank Miller's celebrated graphic novel, finally hit theaters Friday, April 1, and I got a chance to see it opening night. I'll just get to the point; it's a flawed but absolutely mind-blowing movie experience. This from a decided non-fanboy who's glanced at the source material in a comic store maybe once.

At it's heart, Sin City updates a whole arsenal of classic film noir building block characters. There's the aging cop, Hartigan (Bruce Willis), in hot pursuit of a psychotic killer; Marv (Mickey Rourke), the ugly-but-loveable cinderblock of a loser who jumps straight into peril to avenge a martyred blonde; and an extensive gallery of crazies, crooks, corrupt government/authority figures, and hookers with hearts of gold (and cajones of brass).

Bad news first; in its attempt to be The Penultimate Film Noir (and a 100% faithful adaptation of the graphic novel), Sin City flirts dangerously close to self-parody. Hard-boiled voice-over dialogue that probably felt just right on a printed page induced some unintended chuckles from the audience at the screening I attended, and damn near ripped me out of the moment on occasion. I'm inclined to blame Rodriguez, who lacks his drinking buddy Quentin Tarantino's gift for getting stock characters to deliver tough-guy dialogue with nuance.

That said, the movie's much-vaunted visual style (deep black and white noir sparseness, shot through with occasional sprays of one primary color, all augmented digitally to literally reproduce the look of a comic book page) delivers big-time. It's striking and unique, capturing the immersive, sharply-inked universe of a graphic novel better than any film I can recall. And though there are plenty of razzle-dazzle action sequences, Sin City also defiantly sits still at key points, letting the imagery seep in and impact the viewer without pandering to The Evil Church of the MTV-style Quick Cut. Producers of every CGI-and-effects-laden event flick like to crow about how visually innovative their movie is, but this one earns such bragging rights. Kudos to Miller for sticking to his guns and finding an enthusiastic (and loyal ) collaborator in Robert Rodriguez.

Voice-over lapses aside, Sin City also provides something you don't often get from an effects-laden event picture: namely, good actors getting some meaty moments on camera. Amongst the leads, Bruce Willis remains one of the few bankable actors in Hollywood today who can slide into a classic noir tough-guy role like a weathered old raincoat, Clive Owen exudes some major charisma (though he sometimes gets the fuzzy end of the aforementioned voice-over lollipop), Benicio Del Toro turns in another great scuzzy heavy, and Jessica Alba registers strongly as a textbook Little Girl Lost (albeit in chaps and skimpy leather).

Other actors get a chance to stretch their wings in unexpected roles. Multiply evil ring-coveting Frodo by one million and you only begin to cover how creepy sweet Elijah Wood is in this movie. Rodriguez likewise deserves major props for managing to harness the usually annoying Brittany Murphy's poodle-on-crystal-meth hyperactivity into a great wounded noir dame. You can almost see shades of the underrated Gloria Grahame in Murphy's work.

While we're passing huzzahs out to the more cinema-savvy portion of the directorial team, Rodriguez probably merits the credit for actively seeking out great-but-overlooked thesps, and for giving them some serious moments in the sun. Swaddled 'neath an unrecognizable makeup job, Mickey Rourke gives one of the best performances of his career as Marv; the character's battle-weary demeanor and inner vulnerability surely struck an empathetic chord in the actor. Rutger Hauer disappears into the role of the beatifically perverse Cardinal Rourk, and Powers Boothe flat-out cauterizes the screen with his three-minute monologue as this rotten berg's most morally bankrupt mover and shaker. Plot and character-wise, Sin City could be accused of traversing familiar territory sometimes, but with actors like these in tow--and style to burn--the journey's well worth taking.

1 comment:

cleverandfunny said...

Hey, is this the same Tony Kay of
the legendary Dust Blair rock combo? If so, Email me NOW! I just
moved back to Seattle and would to hear from you!

-Brad Roberts
(computer amateur, I know)