Sin City

April, 2005, Thriller

Directed by:Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, Special Guest Director: Quentin Tarantino

Starring:Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Jessica Alba, Benicio del Toro, Brittany Murphy, Elijah Wood, Rosario Dawson, Jaime King, Michael Clarke Duncan, Alexis Bledel, Powers Boothe, Michael Madsen, Josh Hartnett, Devon Aoki, Carla Gugino, Rutger Hauer, and Marley Shelton

Comic books for adults, known more commonly--and euphemistically-- as "graphic novels", have been a staple of Japanese and French publishing for years, where they enjoy a wide, principally male audience. Their growing popularity here in the U.S., (which can be seen by browsing any chain bookstore in a large city) is a more recent phenomenon, one due in no small measure to the critical success of the cartoonist R. Crumb, whose Bosch-like characters thumb their noses as middle-class morality and garner praise for their author's off-beat artistic talents. Crumb, who has been drawing "underground" strips for decades, has legitimized the genre here, allowing former comic-strip creators to move away from conventional work on paper featuring heroes like Batman and Superman into the far more lucrative realm of adult entertainment. 

No one has made this transition more effectively than Frank Miller, who has developed comic book characters and the stories that contain them since the 1970's. Working for Marvel Comics, he's been involved with the "Daredevil" and "X-Men" characters, all recently brought to the big screen with stunning financial results. Miller has now joined forces with director Robert Rodriguez to create this technically sophisticated compilation of three stores from his graphic series of the same name. Although he's written a couple of successful screenplays, (RoboCop, Elecktra) Miller has never directed; Rodriguez, the young Hispanic director responsible for both blood-drenched gore, (From Dusk Till Dawn, Once Upon A Time In Mexico) as well as charming escapism for kids, (Spy Kids 1 & 2) is such a fan of Miller's work that he offered to co-direct this apparently faithful rendering of the latter's darker vision.

Working with a cast of well-known male actors, (Bruce Willis, Benicio Del Toro, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Powers Booth) and a score of young starlets with pneumatically-advantaged chests, Martin and Rodriguez have fashioned a dazzling fusion of live-action and animation that will appeal to anyone more interested in form than content. While the results are an eye-popping demonstration of the extended reach possible in the film medium, the content, with its masturbatory obsession with violent revenge, gruesome bloodletting and semi-nude young women in stripper/whore costumes quickly becomes boringly repetitious. Miller doesn't have much to say and doesn't say it well, despite his stunningly effective visual presentation.

Willis, Owen and Rourke serve as blood-lusting protagonists in a trio of inter-locking stories each of which revolves around the defense, (and/or the avenging) of women who have been sexually abused by the kind of demented characters which can best be effectively depicted in cartoon-ish caricature. By placing the human cast in front of gigantic cartoon backgrounds and interspersing their scenes with animated ones that extend the action into the realm of the surreal, the directors succeed in conjuring up a nightmarish world of depravity, obsession and atavistic behavior all the more disturbing because Miller and Rodriguez morph so seamlessly from the real into what Miller's feverish imagination has conjured up.

Defenders of this art form argue that it's far healthier to permit it than it is to repress the urges from which it springs--and they may well be correct in that assessment. Miller ostensibly explores here the decline in contemporary Western society with its steadily diminishing social/moral norms.  But there's no attempt to promote anything resembling an ethical standard in Sin City beyond the repeated insistence that violence to women, particularly sexual violence, deserves to be met with bestial revenge by the male animal. The relish with which the creators of this movie slather on the sex and violence suggests they're more interested in voyeurism than defining the appropriate limits of individual behavior in a post-modern, thoroughly secularized culture. (The issue of appropriate male response to female sexual exploitation is brilliantly examined in Old Boy, a Korean film I'll review tomorrow.) Like Tarentino's Kill Bill couplet, (to which it's heavily indebted) Sin City brims with a nihilistic worldview worthy of Nietzsche, but without any that philosopher’s cautionary insight.

 The Verdict? Unless you're up for two hours of non-stop gouging, stabbing, mutilation and other forms of vicarious mayhem, skip this one.   

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