Aug 17, 2021
Sin City’s biggest sin: Making violence boring
In 2005, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller brought us Sin City, a live-action adaptation of Miller’s gritty graphic novel series of the same name. It was a critical success, and audiences flocked to see its all-star cast and groundbreaking special effects. The film was created almost entirely using digital lighting and footage shot on green screen sets, and the color scheme utilizes stark black and white photography mixed with red, white, and (occasionally) yellow blood to great effect. Rodriguez used Miller’s graphic novels essentially as a storyboard, striving to make each shot look as much like the original comic panel as possible. It’s an extremely literal translation of the source material, which is why the movie version of Sin City has no credited screenwriter, and Miller, despite admitting to not having done much on the set, is given the title of co-director.
While the visuals are clearly the main attraction, the film also features Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Clive Owen, Nick Stahl, Benicio del Toro, and numerous other well-known actors, occasionally under lots of prosthetics.
Sin City is divided into three main stories, as well an interconnecting prologue and epilogue. The film’s prologue (based on the one-shot story “The Customer is Always Right”) involves a man (Josh Hartnett) and woman (Marley Shelton) smoking on top of a high-rise, and while he’s delivering a noir-ish voiceover monologue, we’re distracted by the awesome color design where everything is black and white other than Shelton’s green eyes and red dress. The man offers the dame a cigarette, then he shoots her and holds her tight, with his voiceover suggesting that, weirdly enough, the woman hired him to kill her.
The film then shows the beginning of the first story, based on “That Yellow Bastard”. John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) saves a little girl named Nancy from a serial killer (Nick Stahl), but as it turns out, the killer is a senator’s son. The senator has the whole town in his back pocket, and Hartigan’s corrupt partner (Michael Madsen) shoots Hartigan and leaves him to die while holding Nancy.
Then the main event begins. In “The Hard Goodbye”, we meet Marv (Mickey Rourke), a brutish gladiator of a man who wakes up next to a beautiful woman named Goldie (Jaime King) that he brought home the night before. Unfortunately for him, she’s dead and he’s on parole. And as if that’s not bad enough, the police are already rushing upstairs. He realizes that he’s been framed, and he quickly makes his violent escape.
He’s on the run from the police, but he’s more focused on finding out who killed his girl and why. She was the only woman to ever pay attention to him, and he vows to exact vicious revenge on whoever killed her. Soon enough, he meets her twin sister Wendy, also played by King. They uncover a plot that includes the local bishop (Rutger Hauer), as well a devilish psychopath named Kevin (Elijah Wood). Cannibalism, dismemberment, and a malfunctioning electric chair ensue.
In the next story, “The Big Fat Kill”, Shellie (Brittany Murphy) is terrorized by her ex-boyfriend Jackie Boy (Benicio del Toro) and his crew. Her new boyfriend Dwight (Clive Owen) is hiding in the bathroom, and he just happens to be a hardened criminal. He confronts Jackie and shoves his face into the toilet until he passes out, then takes his leave by jumping out of what appears to be a tenth-story window and landing unharmed.
Dwight then follows Jackie Boy and his buddies into Old Town, a violent area where the prostitutes (Rosario Dawson, Alexis Bledel, Devon Aoki, among others) run the show and the cops aren’t allowed to mess with them. Jackie tries to score with one of the hookers and gets turned down, so he turns belligerent and pulls a gun on her. The rest of the girls quickly show up to slaughter Jackie and friends, and Dwight happily joins in. But that’s when he realizes that Jackie Boy was a cop, and now they have to act fast to avoid a bloody turf war.
Dwight is tasked with disposing of Jackie’s body in the local tar pits, where he’s attacked by Irish mercenaries working for the mob. Meanwhile, a mob enforcer with a golden eye patch (Michael Clarke Duncan) kidnaps some of the hookers, holding them hostage in exchange for Jackie Boy’s body. Eventually, Dwight leads the mobsters into a trap where he and the girls of Old Town triumphantly blow them all away in a massive rooftop onslaught.
The film ends with the conclusion of “That Yellow Bastard”. Hartigan is framed for the crimes of the serial killer and goes to jail for eight years, but still gets weekly letters from Nancy, the young girl he rescued. But then one week, the letter doesn’t come. Instead, a guy with bright yellow skin shows up in his cell and hands him an envelope apparently containing Nancy’s severed finger.
Hartigan decides to confess to crimes he didn’t commit just so he can get out on parole and save Nancy. He soon discovers that Nancy is now 19 years old and played by Jessica Alba, and working as a stripper who of course never gets naked.
Upon seeing her, Hartigan realizes the severed finger was just a ploy to get him to lead the killer right to her. And it’s also revealed that the guy with the bright yellow skin is the serial killer, who experienced a few side effects from the medical treatments he received after Hartigan nearly killed him. He’s now yellow and clearly a bastard; hence the title. He kidnaps Nancy and takes her to the family farm to finish what he started eight years ago, and you can probably guess how things turn out for him.
And finally, the movie wraps up with a brief reappearance of Josh Hartnett’s hit man, who offers Alexis Bledel’s character a cigarette, meaning she’s presumably his next target.
Sin City takes place in an outlandish, hyper-violent universe where the rules of physics and practicality don’t seem to apply. This is a world where the cops wear face paint, tough guys can jump through car windshields and jump off ten-story buildings with no ill effects, and medical procedures can cause your skin and blood to turn yellow. But the movie makes no apologies for its strange, twisted reality, and you either roll with it, or you don’t.
As discussed earlier, the best aspect of the film is its gorgeous black and white photography mixed with bright reds, yellows, white blood, and striking blue and green eyes, and the movie’s look is nearly inviting enough to carry the entire film on its own. The first and last stories are solid neo-noir tales with freely flowing blood, curvaceous women (Carla Gugino has a particularly memorable topless scene), and hard-boiled dialogue. These two stories are fun, but then there’s the middle story… oh dear, the middle story, which really brings into focus what’s wrong with this film, and hinders the enjoyment of everything else.
See, if you take away the visuals, the three stories themselves are rather unremarkable, even with all the violence and chaos. In fact, the violence is so uncompromising that we become desensitized to it, and eventually it becomes boring. Which is unfortunate, because the bloodshed is one of the film’s big selling points. The first time we’re subjected to white blood, castration, and dismemberment, it’s shocking, outrageous, and slightly comical. But it never ends, and it gets way more gruesome as the film goes on. By the time we get to Elijah Wood with all his limbs chopped off being eaten alive by a wolf, it’s just tiresome.
One of the main reasons that the film loses its steam so grandly is because it lacks a soul or strong comedic center. Many of the “funny” bits miss the mark entirely, and this is especially apparent in the scene where Jackie Boy fires a jammed gun, and ends up with the gun slide lodged in his frontal lobe. He then slips and falls on a shuriken before having his throat slit. On paper, it sounds like a gory Three Stooges act, which I’m all for, but on film it fails to work. Where Quentin Tarantino was able to find humor among the nonstop violence in Kill Bill, Rodriguez fails to mix the two together, leaving us with mismatched scenes of depravity and cheap humor.
As mentioned before, the weakest link in the film is the middle section, “The Big Fat Kill”. It actually pains me to say that this section was hopelessly boring; I mean, it’s about hot women in skimpy outfits kicking ass! It sounds like cinematic bliss. But instead, it’s a clunky, uneven mess of a middle that really hurts the finale of the film. Rosario Dawson, while looking great, is completely out of her element here. Her S&M-loving prostitute with a heart of gold has some of the most cringe-inducing lines of the film, and while I’m guessing these were meant to provide comic relief, they only serve to take the edge off the narrative.
The usually fantastic Clive Owen comes close to saving the day, but doesn’t have much to work with either. Try as he might, even he can’t salvage the inane dialogue that pervades this middle chapter. Then there’s Benicio del Toro, who shows again that he can easily play a character full of menace and intrigue, yet he’s wasted here with a stunted, awkward performance.
Unfortunately, Sin City’s middle section is enough to diminish the mostly fantastic last half and the stellar beginning. This may be due to the source material, which is admittedly very one-note. The characters are all tough as nails, the violence is cruel, and the women are all busty femme fatales. It sounds great in theory, but when it seemingly never ends, the excitement wears off fast.
Part of the problem certainly stems from Rodriguez and his directorial style. He’s infamous for completing films way ahead of schedule, and filming very few takes. This style often works, but in Sin City, it produces performances that feel extremely rushed and underdeveloped. Sure, his actors aren’t reading fantastic dialogue, and the characters themselves are rather one-dimensional, but each line has such an awkward rhythm that it borders on parody.
This is an all-star cast, and nearly all of them are capable of playing interesting characters. Yet the only two cast members who are truly memorable here are Mickey Rourke as Marv and Nick Stahl as the Yellow Bastard. They both bring passion to their characters, and it’s no wonder that Rourke’s character is the most remembered and loved. He brings his A game to the role, and he elevates his sequences to a whole new level.
Compare that to Clive Owen, or Bruce Willis, or even Michael Madsen’s brief appearance. They all fail to ham up their performances, while also failing to play them perfectly straight, so what we’re left with is a lot of uneven performances that hinder the comedy and minimize the dread. It’s embarrassing to watch at times.
I understand why a film might want to utilize a one-note performance. Darryl Hannah in Kill Bill was a one-note menace without a shred of humanity, yet she was interesting, funny, and engaging. Her lines of dialogue are similar to those in Sin City: short, blunt, and often with a hint of irony. But Tarantino (who actually guest-directs a scene here) and Hannah went all in with that role, whereas Rodriguez and crew are all over the place. It’s this lack of focus that keeps Sin City from being a re-watchable classic. Instead, we’re left with an overlong film that looks incredible, has non-stop eye candy, and yet still manages to be boring.
Still, the film did well enough to warrant a much-belated sequel, albeit one that so far has only earned back about half of its $70 million budget. Perhaps this is the natural consequence of waiting almost a decade to follow up on a movie that was a bit of a mess in the first place. Yes, Sin City is a mess, though not an entirely disastrous one. The first and last episodes are mostly great, and the prologue and epilogue are good too, but that middle section is a mood killer. Along with Rodriguez’s misguided direction, we’re left with a film that we desperately want to like more than we actually do.