Pulp Diction

Sin City has plenty of style, zero substance

Sin City, an exquisitely made, unbearably faddish movie that will strike joy into the hearts of all who revere amputation and apocalypse, opens with a swoony love scene culminating in a murder for the heck of it. From there it moves smartly to the promise of child molestation and, with the culprit having had both his face and his balls shot off by Bruce Willis, steams merrily along toward cannibalism, electrocution and the mounting of severed female heads on walls. Had enough? If not, then you are in all likelihood an adult male aging ungracefully, or a pimply youth with a pimply youth's fondness for comic books about hell on Earth. If you're a woman of any age who gets off on this stuff, even with its feeble stabs at feminist role reversals, I throw up my hands.

Still, given the current vogue for empty aesthetics, I'm bracing for the laurels that middle-aged critics suffering from hipster anxiety will heap on this fusion of comic-book art, Asian combat anime and digital cinema. I'll lay odds that Pauline Kael, in her late period of indiscriminate pop worship, would have gushed acres of heated prose in favor of SinCity.As for me, after half an hour spent drooling over its visual splendors, I found the movie every bit as sickening as its creators intended it to be, minus the kicks they so palpably got out of making it.

* * *

Billed as a collaborative work, Sin Cityis directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, with some input from Quentin Tarantino—a meeting of flamboyantly underage minds if ever there was. More accurately, the movie is a labor of puppy love by Rodriguez, whose work shuttles between enjoyably low-rent noir romanticism (ElMariachi) and childlike exuberance (Spy Kids), for the 1990s graphic novels that made Miller a star. Set in an urban wasteland—populated by Amazonian hookers, compromised cops and corrupt senators—that lies somewhere between Hell's Kitchen and the mangier back alleys of downtown Los Angeles, the SinCityseries set the tone for a born-again comic-book art set in the seething underbelly of cities where vice and virtue rub shoulders and trade places at the wrong end of a gun. More imitation than interpretation, the film was "cut and shot," as the credits archly put it (God forbid Rodriguez should be doing anything as reactionary as editing or cinematography), on a green screen with state-of-the-art digital manipulation that essentially functions as a paste-up of Miller's visceral drawings. The handsome production design is classic noir, a shadowy world of silvery black and white stained with blood red and livid yellow to signify both beauty and deformity of body and spirit. As is so often the case with hardcore pulp, the dialogue, co-written by Miller and Rodriguez, works better on the page than declaimed out loud, which revs up the clipped meta-speech to the point of real silliness.

SinCitybrings together three of Miller's tales, in which ambiguous heroes, festering in the same interstitial cracks of the city as their quarries, take revenge as a means to redemption from their own failings. Unrecognizable under many pounds of makeup and Schwarzenegger musculature, Mickey Rourke looks splendidly craggy as Marv, a street-fighting loner who cruises the nighttime city hunting down the killers of a beautiful blond hooker he fell in love with because she was the first and only woman to drop him a kind word. Doing Bogart detail, Clive Owen, in floor-mop hair, plays a private eye who tries to stay out of trouble (represented by a porked-out Benicio del Toro with a dagger stuck in his forehead, in a sequence directed by Quentin Tarantino) while laboring to protect a leathered-up bevy of ladies of the evening who—headed by Rosario Dawson in heavy bondage gear and Devon Aoki as a silent but deadly swordswoman—turn out to need less protection than he does. In a valiant effort at moral complexity, SinCityis bookended by the ailing, washed-up cop Hartigan (Willis), who in his last hour of service saves an imperiled child whose destiny will haunt him to the end of his days.

These three heroic abstractions (no one in his right mind could call them characters) coalesce into a gaga knightliness that only a virgin schoolboy could get behind. In the acting out of Miller's timely if hardly original themes, the hazy line between sin and virtue blurs into a furiously accelerating orgy of gore and severed limbs that could very well make Takashi Miike blanch—that is the true, manga-inspired impulse of this film. "We were like three kids in a tree fort having a ball," Miller has said about the making of Sin City, and I believe him. The product of three adolescent imaginations with a Sam Fuller fixation, brilliant mastery of the toys in their digital sandbox, and next to no grasp of life, Sin City's moral dilemmas are bogus and engage no emotional response. Unlike the Spider-Manfranchise, the movie has no sense of fun beyond the filmmakers' high-pitched giggles at the expense of audience stamina.

Years ago, before he grew famous, Tarantino told me in an interview that his own enjoyment and the kick audiences got out of his brand of aestheticized violence were its only justification. I can't think of any other, but his formula—visceral, stylish, derivative and detached from all humanity—has grown into a virus, frantically copying itself all over the map of contemporary cinema. Given the burgeoning market for their work at home and abroad, in all likelihood he and Rodriguez and their legion of imitators will get better and better at what they do, while having less and less to say. For those of us who like our movies to show or tell us something about the way we live, that's both too much, and not nearly enough.

SIN CITY WAS DIRECTED BY FRANK MILLER AND ROBERT RODRIGUEZ; WRITTEN BY RODRIGUEZ, BASED ON THE GRAPHIC NOVELS BY MILLER; PRODUCED BY ELIZABETH AVELLAN. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.

 
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