dir: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, Quentin Tarantino and a bunch of circus monkeys on rollerskates
[img_assist|nid=892|title=All sorts of sins abound in Basin City|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=449|height=297]
Take the very essence of film noir, the constant smoking, the femme fatales, the violent goons, the black and white universe (especially). Distil it down to its purest elements, devoid of any pretensions apart from delivering the most violent, sleaziest explosion of trashy entertainment possible, and you have Sin City in all its vile glory.
And it is glorious. Glorious and unrepentant trash. It is the first movie adaptation of a comic book that looks exactly like the comic book (sorry, graphic novel). It is essentially a moving comic, animation with ‘real’ people in it. Of the recent crop of films where the only real thing in the scene is the people, Sin City is the most accomplished and best realised (on a slender budget), because it really achieves what it sets out to achieve. And at a fraction of the price.
Basin City is a metropolis of vice carved out of the darker recesses of the American subconscious. Everything is at its extreme. The societal system isn’t just unjust, it’s absolutely corrupt to the core. Women aren’t just attractive, they’re sexy enough to drive men to murder and worse. The protagonists and their antagonists aren’t just criminals, they’re murderous psychopaths, cannibals and rapists. No-one is pure, no-one is safe.
The film is really three of Miller’s stories intertwined. Three distinct stories which nonetheless blend together their themes of maniacal men and the women they protect / lust for / dismember. The cast is really long and impressive, which is a phrase anyone likes to hear in the right context.
It starts and ends with the story of Hartigan (Bruce Willis), the one uncorrupted cop in Basin City, trying to protect little Nancy, and then big Nancy (Jessica Alba) from the predations of the last scion of a murderous, powerful family (Nick Stahl).
Now that I’ve written that, I recall it actually starts and ends with a different story element. In the very first scene, a woman in red, alone on a balcony during a party, is approached by a suave, suited man (Josh Hartnett), who captivates her by telling her all about herself. He seems genuinely concerned with her well-being, almost in love, as if a voyeur who has fallen in love with someone he’s never met.
Then, of course, he shoots her. Since that’s what he was hired to do.
Since the flick adheres as closely to its roots as it can, there is narration persistent throughout. You have to remember, though the people and the backgrounds are animated, it’s still supposed to be less of an adaptation and more of a ‘moving’ comic book itself. Comics often have narration to avoid the need to artificially create dialogue, to keep the story moving along, to let you get into the heads of your characters, and, also, because that’s where some of the best writing usually is.
Generally, it can be said that too much narration shows either timidity on the part of a film’s makers, who don’t trust the audience to get what’s going on without explaining it to them in painful detail, or lousy storytelling (when it is literally telling us what’s going on, instead of showing us).
Here, it’s crucial. It can get a bit distracting and even irritating sometimes, because it’s so persistent, but it wouldn’t work without it. So I say it’s a forgivable crime, but not, as with all the actions taken by characters in the film, a victimless one.
Mickey Rourke’s mad Marv is flat out amazing. He’s almost unrecognisable under mountains of latex flesh and scars, with a larger than life persona to match the insane look. Like a film noir Frankenstein monster, he tears up Basin City literally in search of a woman’s killers. Goldie (Jaime King), a woman that gave him a moment of kindness, is murdered in her sleep whilst a grateful Marv lays next to her.
He tortures and brutalises his way towards the truth, never sure of his own memory. Fed strong anti-psychotic drugs by his nearly always naked parole officer Lucille (Carla Gugino), the ‘real’ world blends with his delusions, until he’s not really sure what’s really going on.
“This is blood for blood and by the gallon. These are the old days, the bad days, the all-or-nothing days. They're back! There's no choice left. And I'm ready for war.” - Marv
His bloody path leads to the city’s most powerful family, and their cannibal progeny (Elijah Wood, who never speaks a word). Brutal, gruesome and macabre are three words you could use to describe what happens here. The film, though black and white, doesn’t obviate the gore level that much. Even if torrents of blood and amputated limbs are depicted without colour (except on the occasions where they are), they can still bring a bit of your last meal up.
Marv has one of the single greatest lines of dialogue ever uttered on the cinema screen, which sounds like nothing outside of its context. Still, “Is that the best you can do, you pansies?” gave me one of the biggest, horrified laughs I’ve ever had from a film, ever.
Dwight (Clive Owen) returns to the city after plastic surgery (for reasons never shared with us). Like every other male protagonist, he’s somewhat unhinged as well. After shacking up for the night with a floozy (Brittany Murphy, the only person miscast in the film), he inadvertently gets involved with the death of a hero cop (Benicio De Toro).
This risks breaking the uneasy truce between the official powers that be, the mafia and Oldtown, the region of Basin City run by a collective of lace, leather and fishnet-clad prostitutes. Dwight’s old flame Gail (Rosario Dawson) tries to find some way to maintain the balance whilst also delighting in slaughter and bloodshed, especially at the hands of Oldtown’s lethal pixie enforcer Miho (Devon Aoki).
Towards the end of that sequence, when Gail and the girls are meting out Oldtown’s version of justice to a group of thugs and hired goons hellbent on bringing back the bad old days of pimps and terror, the expression on Gail’s face is nothing short of pornographic. Dwight, caught in one of those love / hate dynamics with Gail, calls her his lustful warrior woman and delights at the sight of her as she rains down bullet death.
“My valkyrie. You'll always be mine, always and never.” – Dwight.
He delights in her erotic slaughter, and what’s not to like? I don’t think Rosario Dawson has ever looked more murderously hot than she does in this.
It’s another in a long line of sick thrills. A sleazy sensuality weaves its way throughout the film, not generally for the purpose one would assume. As Sin City operates in this hyper-real universe of its own construction, lifter from a thousand pulp sources, the basic elements of the human animal are catered to. This isn’t some intellectual process, some fascinatingly leaden evaluation of human existence in the face of morality, immorality and death.
The stories and characters, they’re all archetypes living in a brutal microcosm solely for our benefit. So the thrills and spills are visceral above the cerebral. That’s not to say the cerebral doesn’t play a part in it. The context has to exist for a reason.
The city is so corrupt the word no longer has any meaning. The law, or the legitimate powers that be are no more moral or less vile than the criminals, which seem to comprise everyone throughout the city. There are no good guys, no innocent characters (except maybe Nancy), and the main guys are only on ‘our’ side because their mad sadism is in the cause of helping those they lust after, love, or have lost. It’s not, as in the case of the psychopaths, in the cause of their own perverse satisfaction.
The cops, the senators, the priests; every layer of the city is rotten to the core. Sure, it’s not that different from this world, but it’s still confronting as a scenario. I don’t know enough about Frank Miller’s world to know if the characters are like that because of the city, or the city is like that because of the characters. It’s one of those chicken and the egg, or chicken dismembering other chickens, or cannibal egg questions that I can’t answer as yet.
There’s almost a totalitarian, dystopian element to the city. Then again, this is the world of comic book inspiration, where the heroes can take lethal beatings, multiple shooting and stabbings and still keep going. Where the women are all beautiful, vulnerable and lethal, pure and slutty all at the same time. Surely there are more than virgins and whores represented in the… no, actually, there aren’t.
Hartigan returns in the last sequence, still striving to save Nancy from the evil in the city. The good cop’s spent the last eight years in prison to protect her, and is forced to pay a terrible price to keep her safe.
Out of jail, his path brings him back to Nancy, now less the ‘daughter’ figure of his memory, and more a 19 year old siren, who also happens to be a stripper. The bastard who pursued her with vile intent nine year’s ago wants to exact revenge on her and Hartigan, and it’s up to the cop to finish what he started on his old friend.
That Yellow Bastard. He glows yellow off the screen, with an inhuman, unnatural colour. You can almost smell the vile smell other character’s can only describe. He’s probably one of the most hideous creations to ever hit the screen in any capacity. I’m not always one for the revenge epics, since they’re usually tiresome and predictable, but as a form of revenge, I doubt they could have done it better.
The ending, in keeping with the feel of the piece, is still appropriately downbeat. The madder characters don’t need or get apologies for their action, and Hartigan, in this universe, can’t expect any favours for being a good guy.
Crosses, double crosses, ultra-violence, moral murkiness, woman dressed sluttily, snappy and cheesy dialogue, cinematic cliches dating back 70 years brushed off and redone, this flick is worth its weight in blood-spattered gold. It is easily one of the best films of 2005, because it achieves exactly what it sets out to achieve, and it does so in grand style. A triumph. Robert Rodriguez has finally gotten something right.
8 cop heads with grenades taped inside their mouths out of 10
“I'll stare the bastard in the face as he screams to God, and I'll laugh harder when he whimpers like a baby. And when his eyes go dead, the hell I send him to will seem like heaven after what I've done to him.” – Marv, Sin City