Sin City" is the most challenging type of film for me to review as a critic. It brings to mind such films as "Natural Born Killers," Tarantino films and, on a certain level, a film such as "The War Zone." In many ways, it does right what "Ichi the Killer" did wrong.
"Sin City" is a film that strongly violates my value system, and yet is, nearly undeniably, a beautifully made, captivating and entertaining film that couldn't possibly be considered for failure on the "values" issue. It simply wouldn't be a true, critical evaluation of the film.
I knew I was in trouble within the first few minutes of "Sin City" when I saw the black and white imagery...when I saw Bruce Willis, and I wasn't irritated...when I heard the writing of Frank Miller coming to life onscreen. Even the pacifist in me couldn't deny the inherent entertainment value of "Sin City" as I watched its crime-filled, action-filled and suspense-filled scenes come to life time and again. I wanted to be offended by this film, but it won me over with its style, its drama, its story and, yes, its heart.
At the core of "Sin City" are characters that crave redemption without realizing it. These characters live a life that most would say doesn't even exist, but somewhere deep down within our psyche we know there are really people like this out there. There are dirty cops and cops who can't let go...there are children in peril and children who never forget...there are minds so sick that if they wanted YOU dead right now you'd be dead RIGHT NOW...there are clergy too powerful for their own good and there are lots and lots and lots of people who will kill in their name. There are probation officers who cross the line and do whatever it takes and there are people, strung out and sober, who are crying out for love and will do whatever it takes to protect and/or defend it once they find it. These characters are extreme, but these characters are oh so real.
Robert Rodriguez has never been my favorite director, yet his style of direction is wondrous for this type of film. His love, passion, flair for action and sensitivity to humanity are evident in nearly every shot. Indeed, his deep regard for the writings of Frank Miller is evident from his co-directing credit, his giving Miller top billing and in the amazingly faithful cinematography and style of the film.
The flair of Rodriguez is such that I saw bits and pieces of his previous films not as a "copy" of those films but in the original way he handled this material. Even the scenes with Nancy, at age 11, are handled with such care...young Makenzie Vega gives an outstanding performance here and Rodriguez brings to life many of the qualities we saw in "Spy Kids," with kids who are vulnerable, yet empowered simultaneously. It is a difficult balance to achieve onscreen, yet Rodriguez seems to bring performances out of young actors that defy the imagination.
The material couldn't possibly have come to life without strong performances across the board...the aforementioned Willis, an actor who normally irritates me beyond words, is captivating here as a cop who can't give up, can't let go, can't stop protecting and can't lose hope. His overwrought, histrionic chewing of lines has always seemed a tad on the dramatic side yet works perfectly in the framework of this film. Clearly, Willis is comfortable expressing emotion on this level and he does so with great conviction and a presence I've not seen often from Willis onscreen.
On the flip side, Mickey Rourke gets back in the driver's seat with a performance that may be the best of his career. Rourke, an obviously talented and attractive actor who blew his first chance at fame, clearly relishes the chance to handle a meaty part and has a field day with his role of an ex-con who feels loved for the first time and spends the rest of the film defending her honor after she is murdered. It would be easy to look at his character and say "What a vile creature," but there's so much more evident. Rourke, clearly able to get in touch with his own darkness, brings great light and inspiration to a character that practically begged to be made a caricature.
"Sin City" also offers us the best performances in years from the likes of Powers Boothe, as a corrupt senator, Rutger Hauer (Yes, it's true I said "Rutger Hauer") as a corrupt cardinal, Nick Stahl as Yellow Bastard and the film community has finally found the perfect role for Josh Hartnett...black and white, emotionless and expressionless! Bingo, that's Josh Hartnett!
Jessica Alba as the grown up Nancy? Mesmerizing, beautiful and worthy of the movie poster...Devon Aoki as Miho? Simply stunning and powerful...Clive Owen as Dwight? Yes! Yes! Yes! Owen is back showing us his acting chops and it's a joy to behold. I didn't necessarily care for the violent response to domestic abuse answer, but I understood it and it played well. Then, of course, there's Elijah Wood...without uttering a word, Wood simply comes to life as Kevin, a silent but deadly killer. This is the performance that LOTR begged for, and Rodriguez clearly needs to have a sit down chat with Peter Jackson to teach him how to coax this kind of performance out of an actor. Wood, acting like this, would have elevated LOTR to the stratosphere. The smaller, supporting performances all excel here including Michael Clarke Duncan (finally getting another decent role), Rosario Dawson, Benicio Del Toro (frightening AND hilarious as Jackie Boy), Jaime King (mix of rage and vulnerability as Goldie/Wendy) and also Michael Madsen, Alexis Bledel, Carla Gugino and on and on.
Perhaps my only quibble with the casting was in Brittany Murphy, who makes two appearances here and seems noticeably lost in the strong presentation of the material. In the vast majority of films, this performance would have been acceptable but considering this film's presentation and the strength of the other performances Murphy ends up coming off more Shakespearean than pulpish. It wasn't a horrid distraction, but a definite weakness.
Rodriguez is, dollar for dollar, one of the best bargains in Hollywood. Those who made "Polar Express" should take a look at this film and learn how to say so much more for so much less. Admittedly, $40 million is still more than I'll make in my lifetime yet it's a bargain by today's film standards. The ability of Rodriguez to produce a captivating, well shot and stunningly produced film on such a budget is a lesson for all Hollywood directors. The cinematography is beautiful, set design wonderful (though a bit too artificial at times), the soundtrack/score perfect in every aspect and the costuming a joy to behold.
"Sin City" violated my value system, but perhaps even more bothersome it made sure I enjoyed the experience. It was a guilty pleasure, but also a wonderful film to behold. I can't, however, deny the importance of my value system and my concern that too many young minds will see this stylized presentation of rather extreme violence and be "entertained" by it. It's a bothersome issue, and I couldn't help but feel at times that the violence was too excessive, too cartoonish and too needless. Rodriguez has mastered producing films on less, now he needs to learn the power of silence and of holding back and trusting the story and characters to tell the story.
After nearly a month of consideration for this review, however, I can't deny the entertainment value and powerful messages within this film. While I may not have a full appreciation for how this film is presented, it kept me constantly interested, constantly caring and constantly concerned about these characters. I want to know where they are now, how they feel, how their lives panned out. Torn between my critical eye and my inner voice, I compromise in rating this film a solid "B" and a deep acknowledgement even the pacifist in me found "Sin City" a film worth seeing.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic