Thursday, April 07, 2005

Every Back Alley Shadow

My Artsweek review for "Sin City," nearly ruined by some lazy editor's terrible title.
Sinfully Delightful

An icy blonde dame stands on a balcony outside some swank party. From the shadows emerges a man who, with the manly curtness characteristic of so many strong and silent types, instantly sweeps her into his arms. She’s his. They kiss. Then, silently and discreetly, the man fires a single bullet into her - before she can reveal her secret trouble and before she can become the femme fatale in anyone’s detective novel. Welcome to “Sin City.”

Good guy or bad guy. Friend or foe. Dead or alive. It’s entirely appropriate that Robert Rodriguez’s version cloaks Frank Miller’s Sin City books in black and white for their transformation onto the big screen because the residents of the titular dystopia live in a polarized world. In classic noir style, you’re either with someone or you’re against them - and if you’re against them, you’d better be packing heat.

As every other article on “Sin City” has noted, Rodriguez has translated the series to the big screen with a faithfulness that approaches that of a religious zealot. Every panel, every word bubble and every back alley shadow that slinked across the pages of the original graphic novels becomes realized in the film in a way no director has tried before. The result should surprise no one: If booze, broads and bullets ring your bell in literary form, then “Sin City” will tickle your death-wish vendetta fantasy.

In a conspicuously Tarantino-esque fashion, Rodriguez’s adaptation ties together several plot threads about the lives of America’s most armed and dangerous. Each of the segments existed as its own volume in book form, but since Miller originally wrote all three stories to overlap chronologically, the film feels like a cohesive whole. Hartigan (Bruce Willis playing a grizzled version of Bruce Willis), a hard-boiled detective, searches for Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), the grown-up version of the little girl he once saved from a vicious child killer. Brutish Marv (Mickey Rourke) searches for the killers of an angelic prostitute. And Dwight (Clive Owen), an ex-con with a Lancelot complex, fights to protect the delicate balance between the city’s police, the mob and a deadly band of self-empowered hookers. And with that potent ammunition in place, the plot of “Sin City” fires forth with deadly accuracy. Bang bang.

The only fault one can find in such a film — which does everything a gritty, noir-ish film about bad things and bad people should do — is that its bang often comes at the expense its female characters. While the universe of “Sin City” is generally polarized, its women generally are not. They’re prostitutes. They’re strippers. They’re objects to be leered at or groped, kidnapped or shot. Even the empowered women — like badass leather goddess Gail (Rosario Dawson) or valiant parole officer Lucille (the often-overlooked Carla Gugino) — often need to be rescued by their male associates. It’s a misogynist world, but then again the genre almost demands it. After all, no one ever said Sin City was an ideal town for a young lady.

Greed, lust, wrath: Miller and Rodriguez pack them all in. For what it is, it’s an ode to human vice — and it’s as pitch-perfect as sin can be.

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