If nothing else, Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, codirected with Frank Miller (and Quentin Tarantino, for a few seconds), will be remembered as the most faithful comic-book adaptation ever put on film (or high-def video anyway). Rodriguez uses Miller’s hypernoir serial, published over a ten-year period, as storyboards for the movie — his first in seven years that isn’t a sequel to either his Spy Kids franchise or El Mariachi trilogy. On a green-screen backdrop, the director has digitally rebuilt Miller’s gloomy creation, a dark city populated by corrupt cops, vigilante prostitutes, angelic strippers, moral murderers, and other shadowy figures lurking in the margins between good and evil. Rodriguez had only to trim the fat off the raw meat and throw it on the grill, where an all-star cast (Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, Elijah Wood, Rosario Dawson, and on and on) could gnaw on the bones.
Rodriguez compresses four tales (The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill, That Yellow Bastard, and The Customer Is Always Right) but doesn’t compromise them; save for his Spy Kids offerings, Rodriguez, like Miller, has always believed in a philosophy of “The gore, the merrier” — especially if the sight of a man struggling to retrieve a gun from his severed hand will elicit a groan of disgust and a giggle born of watching a thing taken too far. He devotedly, almost slavishly adheres to Miller’s vision of a black-and-white world tinged with only brief respites of color — the putrid bright yellow skin that covers Nick Stahl’s pedophiliac murderer, the blood-red bed on which hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Goldie (Jaime King) gives herself to psycho killer Marv (Mickey Rourke), the emerald green eyes of the women in Sin City burdened with secrets worth killing over and dying for.
Miller always intended his Sin City stories to be sprawlingly cinematic: He began writing them after Hollywood butchered his RoboCop 2 screenplay, turning back to the comic page that allowed him complete freedom. And as much as Miller trod in the muddy footsteps of comic creators Chester Gould, Milt Caniff, Will Eisner, and Johnny Craig, he was equally inspired by the Warner Bros. film noirs of the 1940s, set in a murky terrain where an invisible line separated the virtuous from the villainous. The transformation of Sin City into a movie almost seems redundant. It’s impressive, absolutely, to see how Rodriguez can take a black-and-white panel and make it bleed red, but it’s also a little distancing; you never quite forget you’re watching one master ape another.
Rodriguez clearly assumes Sin City to be his Pulp Fiction, his rambling portmanteau — a blending of disparate tales to form a complete, overwhelming epic. But he is burdened with three novellas, bookended by a short story starring pretty-boy Josh Hartnett as an assassin, whose themes repeat over and over and over, so what we get isn’t so much a dismantled and rearranged puzzle-piece narrative as much as a song stripped of its verses, till all we’re left with is the chorus. Each story goes something like this: A flawed man with a horrible past puts himself through hell in order to rescue and/or avenge a saintly and/or sinful woman threatened by the well-connected underworld that runs Sin City. Then repeat. And repeat again.
In one instance, it’s medicated superman Marv — Rourke beneath makeup that renders his face the texture of blasted rock — slugging his way through brick walls and shooting his way through men in order to find the men who killed poor, dear Goldie. Marv is a man who believes in “killin’ my way to the truth,” and along the way he stumbles into a cannibal creepo named Kevin (Elijah Wood) and a powerful clergyman (Rutger Hauer) who dines on his leftovers. In another segment, it’s Dwight (Owen), a killer with a new face and old fingerprints, burying body parts of a twisted hero cop named Jack (Benicio Del Toro) in the tar pits in order to protect the whores who run the crime alley Old Town. Dwight begins the night defending his girlfriend, a waitress named Shellie (Brittany Murphy), from Jack; by morning, he and the girls of Old Town, among them Rosario Dawson’s dominatrix Gail and Devon Aoki’s samurai Miho, are laying waste an army of hit men and mobsters controlled by Michael Clarke Duncan’s Manute, whose right eye is made of solid gold.
Of the three stories, the most evocative and resonant is the one featuring Willis’s good-cop John Hartigan, whose rescue of a little girl from vicious kiddie-raper Junior (Stahl) early in the film is revisited at the end. Hartigan is the most noble of all of Miller’s characters, a detective with a bum ticker who sacrifices his shot at cozy retirement to protect a little girl who grows up into Jessica Alba. In Sin City, he’s the man with the most to lose; unlike Marv or Dwight, he needs no redemption, merely a heart that will stop betraying him at the most inopportune moments. When Hartigan again confronts Junior, now mutated into a fluorescent freak, we’re at once thrilled and terrified. The small moment of triumph is muted by a larger horror and the sad inevitability of the doom that has taken up residence in Sin City.