2005. Dir. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, with “special guest director” Quentin Tarantino.
Everyone’s talking about how faithful the film adaptation of Sin City is to the original comic books, some going so far as devote websites to frame-to-cel comparisons. Almost nobody has noted how easy this had to be for the filmmakers.
After all, Frank Miller’s comics—from Sin City to his 1980s reinventions of Batman (The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One) to his psychedelically gruesome Elektra: Assassin—are drenched in cinema, specifically film noir. Everything’s gleaned from the genre: the terse dialogue; the dark visual tone; the world-weary cynicism of the protagonists; the bursts of disturbing violence; the dry, mordant humor; the emphasis on revenge and its consequences. He even cops the stark black-and-white contrasts and jagged “camera” angles of these movies in his drawing style and layouts. The violence is splashier and grislier in Sin City than in 1940s noir. But let’s remember that, for the most part, film noir was the most restlessly violent genre in cinema during its heyday. Contemporary moviegoers were as disturbed by Out of the Past and Double Indemnity as modern readers are by Sin City comics. Part of the thrill of reading the series was seeing how well Miller wove the grammar and concerns of a cinematic genre whole cloth into comics form. (Yes, I know it’s a bad pun. It’s been a long day, and I’m tired.)
So, the movie Sin City is an adaptation of an adaptation. Fine. As we keep adding layers of adaptation to the mix, though, I keep wondering if we’re covering up the fact that there’s not very much at the core. Sin City (the movie) splices together three separate Sin City stories—The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill, and That Yellow Bastard—and wisely decides to connect them only by visual tone. Rodriguez and Miller get the visual tone down so well that we forget that we’ve seen it all before. Shot in black-and-white, the filmmakers add splashes of color—a woman wearing a red dress while looking out over the glowing city; the yellow bastard (Nick Stahl, terrifically creepy) is literally bright yellow cast against black-and-white, just like in the comics; the red-and-blue flashes of a police siren that gleams through the windshield of two criminals. This nightmarish city is truly startling and, despite the fact that it was created almost entirely on greenscreens and on computer monitors, it feels like a tangible world.
Visually, Rodriguez and Miller updated film noir, simply because they have the technology to do so. Emotionally and intellectually, however, they haven’t added a thing. The Yellow Bastard vignette, the film’s last, is the most absorbing. Bruce Willis plays a cop who saves a girl from rape (and worse) by a senator’s son. His good deed lands him in jail for eight years, convicted of crimes he didn’t commit. When he’s finally freed, he’s forced to save her again, and to contend with the fact that she’s now in love with him. Willis is soulful and pained—we can see it in his face. The now-adult girl (Jessica Alba) also radiates emotions through her face so openly that you care about her. When they reunite, here’s how it happens: Alba is dancing on a stage (she’s a stripper now—even the innocents in Sin City are sordid), sees him as he’s turning away, jumps off the stage, skips across a bar and over its patrons, and lands in his embrace, giving him a steamy kiss. It’s the only truly joyful, emotional moment in the movie.
For the most part, however, the vignettes are exercises in style, and nothing more. Nearly every actor gets off a great line or two. (My favorite is Clive Owen’s deadpan opener, as he holds a knife against a man’s throat: “Hi, I’m Shelley’s new boyfriend, and I’m out of my mind.”) But great lines don’t quite add up to great performances, just as a series of tremendous stylistic tricks don’t quite add up to a great movie. The stylistic bleakness of film noir was meant to evoke the oppressiveness and squalor underneath America during the Cold War. The directors uses lighting, angles, and surfaces to convey psychological turmoil. They were Expressionists.
Rodriguez and Miller, on the other hand, are just hipsters. The characters are little more than series of nicely timed quips and jutting actions. The emphasis on duplicating Miller’s drawings in live-action form, right down to hair follicles and cast shadows, is beautiful but unnecessary. (This’ll impress fanboys; no one who hasn’t read the comics will care about this level of exactitude.) Lots of people get killed, in lots of entertaining and stomach-churning ways. Little of it, however, matters. It’s fun to watch Mickey Rourke demolish thugs, but you don’t care much about him or his quest.
And, if you don’t care about the men’s interior states, you’ll care even less about the women. It’s all lip gloss, stiletto heels, sexy smiles, and fierce attitudes. Rosario Dawson, Carla Gugino, Jaime King, Alexis Biedel—Rodriguez and Miller have got an astonishing array (in terms of physical type and acting style) of gorgeous women onscreen. But little of that beauty really registers, much less anything that might be going on inside these characters. Jessica Alba is the aforementioned exception—I’m rooting for her to hit it big now.
Mostly, though, Sin City is like Rosario Dawson in that leather bustier—dazzling to look at, but without resonance.