I'm not as surprised that I adored Frank Miller's Sin City as I am that I didn't hate myself in the morning. Look beyond its visual floridity and white-knuckle pulp plotting, and this is an unavoidably nasty picture, gleefully fixated on decapitations, genitally oriented threats and depraved killers who thirst for blood … women's blood, it's repeatedly and helpfully pointed out.
So why do I consider the movie's April 1 release date suitable cause for a national celebration, when the similarly targeted Kill Bill movies made me want to grab a placard and declare the imminent end of polite civilization? The answer is one I normally loathe: It's all a matter of style. Where the Bills' scattershot B-flick swipes provided inadequate cover for their characters' off-putting alienation, Sin City revels in a hyper-exaggerated sleaziness that indemnifies it against all claims of lapsed taste. By the third or so time you've seen a detached limb bleed a gooey white substance instead of everyday plasma, you should realize you're in on a grand stunt a determination to apply as much pressure on the backbone of noir as the genre can possibly stand. And then to push some more.
Based on comics genius Miller's like-named series of graphic novels (emphasis on the "graphic"), Sin City the movie is an arresting anthology of crime tales interpreted in dazzling digital black and white, then spot-colored to unforgettable perfection. The sun never shines on the seedy metropolis of Basin City, making it the perfect environment for co-directors Miller and Robert Rodriguez to trace the doings of characters whose morality is as much of a grayscale as the film's basic color palette. There's a muscle-bound brute (Mickey Rourke) seeking vengeance on behalf of the dead sexpot who saw past his deformity, and an amorous private dick (Clive Owen) who engages in a little creative dismemberment to protect a community of hookers. Their overlapping adventures are framed by an era-spanning account of the deep affection between a crusading cop (Bruce Willis) and a waifish stripper (Jessica Alba) a love story that only Miller (also the author of the seminal Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) would see as heart-warming.
Already being hailed by some fanboys and -girls as the most faithful comics adaptation ever, the movie plays as if Miller's original illustrations had always been intended as storyboards. Every shot is simply immaculate, shot on green screen and filled in with computer-generated backgrounds that vindicate the new artificial cinema in ways Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow only dreamed of. The elaborately shadowed look meshes beautifully with Miller's trademark hard-boiled narration and acting that ventures just far enough over the top. But will those aforementioned comics geeks realize that, by piling on the noir clichés unto farcicality, Miller is not only taking the piss out of himself, but exposing the entire crime-comic category as essentially ridiculous? (He did the same thing to modern superheroics in the long-awaited sequel series The Dark Knight Strikes Again, and was roundly lambasted by former disciples because of it.) Probably not: They'll be too busy indulging in repeat viewings of the movie's incredible lighting and tastefully applied primary colors a flash of jaundice-yellow skin there, some crimson blood there. (Yes, the real thing is in here, too.) One segment helmed, ironically, by "special guest director" Quentin Tarantino uses splashes of red, blue and green light to the best cinematographic effect since Hero.
The highly regarded critic David Thomson once said that Mulholland Drive was a movie he "want[s] to see all the time." The idea always struck me as uproariously unworkable: All the time? On a dashboard screen while driving, perhaps? In the shower, risking electrocution by video cord? Now that I've seen Miller's and Rodriguez' collaboration, I finally know what Thomson meant. Having this movie's revolutionary visuals ands ghoulish sense of fun indelibly imprinted on my brain hasn't in the least stifled my yearning to experience the real thing again as soon as possible. You can check out of Sin City any time you like, but you can never leave.
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