Sunday, 17 August 2014

From the archive: "Sin City"

Funny things, release dates. Funny in that they often throw up connections and comparisons one might not otherwise have made between wildly disparate films. In the US, Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, a wild digitised adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novels, opened - to somewhat sniffy reviews, dwelling on the film's sadism and sexual politics - at the start of the year, several months before Revenge of the Sith. Here, however, it opens a couple of weeks after that no-less-digitised Star Wars instalment. The contrast between the two works is striking and instructive. Sith served only to prove that visual effects are nothing without characters of substance and a storyline one might wrestle with; that, if a film's hard drive is wiped, it has to have a back-up - something of its essence has to remain on screen. Sin City proves the same thing by doing exactly the opposite: its substantial effects are well and truly bolstered by analogue features. It is Toy Story with nudity, fast cars and very big guns. And it is every bit as ridiculously enjoyable as that description would suggest.

Set in the rainy, corrupt Basin City (in the same state, one presumes, as Nolan's Gotham City), Rodriguez's portmanteau comprises three stories, with a couple of straggly bits to tie them together and any loose ends up. Bruce Willis, with angina and a never-explained scar on his forehead, is an ageing cop trying to track down the pederast son of a powerful Senator (Powers Boothe). Mickey Rourke, under a half-ton of disfiguring latex, is the lunk who's just smart enough to know how dumb he is, trying to track down the man who killed his prostitute lover and framed him for the crime. The final section has Clive Owen, with his collar up, trying to protect waitress Brittany Murphy and a gang of hookers from the unwanted attentions of brutish detective Benicio del Toro. 

All the men give out - and take - extraordinary levels of stylised violence, and thus talk like coffee grinders; the women are more or less tarnished hearts, and dress like Christina Aguilera's backing dancers or, worse, Christina Aguilera herself. It could have been no more than a movie in colourful quotation marks, cinema sin corazon, and at times Sin City does indeed feel like a showcase for the type of effects work that will seen in commercials for executive saloon cars from here to the end of the next decade. Yet unlike George Lucas, who took the writer-director credit on Sith and couldn't fulfil either task with much enthusiasm, Rodriguez has never lacked for passion, and for the time being, Sin City looks and feels fantastic, fresh, new.

That's partly down to Rodriguez's technical restraint. As far as I can gather, the film has been produced using the same blue/green screen processes as Sith, yet here one's eyes never grow complacent to the effects. Rather, each effect registers with the delicacy of tiny, light-reflecting raindrops, like the sudden change of colour briefly observed in a dying woman's eyes. In every aspect, Sin City displays the duality of the best noir films; it's perhaps what Rodriguez was heading towards in his earlier work - the director as both cowboy and poet, gunslinger and mariachi. His latest is both computerised and entirely his own; both true to Miller's literary source and to what might constitute the cinematic; it finds a balance between human desires and the otherworldly that is a perfect match for the business of Miller's storylines.

These characters aren't really to be understood as men and women, but exaggerated versions thereof, blessed and cursed with comic-book capabilities: they leap through the air, withstand colossal beatings, fly, kill and live by night. Yet, unlike in Sith, the actors retain their own distinct personalities. The men, inevitably, come off better, mainly as the leads fall squarely into the tradition of down-on-their-luck noir heroes. Willis offers more to mitigate his restoration to the A-list than we witnessed in the recent, throwaway Hostage. Rourke - even surrounded by technology and buried from the neck up, conditions that left so many of the performances in the new Star Wars stone dead - continues the comeback sparked by his fine character work in Animal Factory and Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico. And Owen is nicely sardonic as an avenger in red sneakers. 

Rodriguez also casts against type, often effectively: pretty boys Nick Stahl and Elijah Wood - little Frodo! - are posited as the vilest, most vicious creatures in a universe already given to such extremes. The women, on the other hand, are mostly here to demonstrate they can look incredibly sexy with the right light source and styling, although Rosario Dawson suffers under a 1980s haircut and an outfit rescued from the Ann Summers bargain bin. Perhaps not the best date movie, then, but then I suspect Sin City is pitched precisely towards those hetero males who've always found women easier to admire than to communicate with. It nevertheless remains the best comic-book movie since last year's Hellboy, and the least compromised Hollywood noir since L.A. Confidential, doing in one film what guest director Quentin Tarantino aspired (and failed) to do with Kill Bill in two. Its lack of restraint may indeed turn sensitive stomachs, but Rodriguez's film offers conclusive proof that when it gets it right and goes (is allowed to go?) hell-for-leather, there is very little more exciting in this world than the sex and violence that make up the American cinema.

(May 2005)

The older me has slightly more qualms and reservations, enjoyable and eye-popping as the film remains, and wonders whether holding any film up against Revenge of the Sith could be considered critically wise. Sin City returns to cinemas next Sunday (the 24th) for one night only, and is available on DVD through Buena Vista; a sequel, Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For, opens nationwide from Friday.

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