I watched this film for the first time a few months ago, and absolutely hated it. In retrospect, it may have been because of circumstances that were completely outside of the film that were distracting me, but I couldn’t even make it all the way through it. Even so, with the release of the long overdue sequel ‘A Dame To Kill For’, which just so happens to be the last event film for a little while (even if the box office probably won’t reflect that), I decided to give it a second look. I have to say, for the most part, I’m pretty glad that I did.
Sin City tells three different stories that all take place in it’s the hellish, noir fueled world. The first one (the second part of which finishes the film) centers on John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) an ailing cop who on his final day on the force rescues a young girl named Nancy Callahan from the rapist son of the most powerful criminal of the city (Nick Stahl). As he takes the fall for he man’s crimes, John is only connected to Nancy through the letters she writes, missing her grow into a stripper played by the beautiful Jessica Alba, and ultimately having to save her when the consequences of his actions come back to bite her. The second story follows Marv (Mickey Rourke), a hulking, deformed, nearly invincible man determined to track down the man who murdered a prostitute named Goldie (Jamie King) who was the only woman who has ever showed him kindness. The third, and in my opinion best one takes us into the underbelly of Sin City’s prostitution circuit, who’s inhabitants also happen to be bad ass warriors who face deadly consequences when an assassin named Dwight (Clive Owen) makes a horrific mistake involving a madman by the name of Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) in their territory.
In Sin City, director Robert Rodriguez delivers the hyper stylized orgy of violence that he has teased and almost made throughout his entire career. This is both the best and worst thing about the movie. On the positive end, the style of this thing on both a visual and visceral level is just out of this world. The visuals are ripped straight from Frank Miller’s graphic novels, the majority of the images entirely in black and white, only showing color to highlight an object that serves a specific purpose in the narrative. On that front, it’s a really beautiful film to look at, with not a wasted frame in the bunch.
This style bleeds over into the violence, which really is the main form of storytelling here. I would guess that the movie never goes longer than six minutes without an action beat, and six minutes is a rarity. Brutality is a constant, and physics are non existent. All of it framed masterfully, and feels rough and impactful in it’s own ridiculous way. Beyond that, we learn more about the characters by the way that they express themselves through this action then we ever do coming from their mouths. Some of them are malicious and brutal, others quiet and deliberate, reflecting their personalities to a tee.
The performances are also pretty good for the most part. Without a doubt, Clive Owen’s Dwight is the highlight for me. His character is calm and calculating, while still being resourceful and utterly merciless to his enemies. His also is given a couple different dimensions, particularly in his complicated relationship with Gail (Rosario Dawson, who is also great in this), the leader of the prostitute army, even if they are very subtle. Rourke is also a lot of fun here, taking someone who could have easily been a one note brute, and pulling a lot of heart out of his pursuit of revenge. Even Bruce Willis does a good job, which I can’t say I’ve seen out of him for a little while. It’s important to note that most of the dialogue in the film, particularly by those three, is delivered through narration, and while some of it definitely pushes the edges of nior cheese, when you have great actors delivering it, it feels authentic. The only weak links here are Jessica Alba, who isn’t so much bad as she is just fairly bland, and Alexis Bledel, who looks confused as to why she’s in this movie in the first place.
While we’re on the subject of characters, I think it’s important to address the elephant in the room, Frank Miller’s portrayal of women. He’s been known to marginalize them, and typically put them in very submissive, demeaning roles. However, in this particular work, I don’t find it to be a major issue. Sure, most of the female characters are either prostitutes, or strippers (in fact, they may all be) but the film does a decent job of not objectifying them too much. Most of the time, they are either shown to be fierce and hardy in combat, or intelligent and feisty. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely not great, but in the context of this story, I don’t see it as a major issue.
What ultimately keeps this movie from being great, or even really good, is that there just isn’t that much to the stories. Sure, there’s a bit of subtext, but really, all three of the tales are very similar. Character A wants revenge because Character B hurt Character C. Even with the fun variations within each one, this can’t help but get a little repetitive, in fact, it’s very repetitive. There’s really only so much of a good thing that can be crammed into one movie, and I think that if even one of these stories had a slightly different structure, it would have worked a lot better. It especially does not help that even when they’re well acted, almost all of the supporting characters are extremely one dimensional. What could have been a powerful exploration into all parts of these violent, mean streets ends up just being an exercise in how much gore can be crammed into a film after a while.
This structure really is what ends up keeping me from giving Sin City a higher rating. There is certainly a whole lot to offer here, it’s visually stunning, and the action is rather entertaining when it’s really firing on all cylinders with committed, fantastic actors behind the guns. In fact, it may very well be the best film I’ve seen by Robert Rodriguez (I haven’t seen many of his films though, not a huge fan), but it just never crosses over for me into being anything other than really fun fluff. Certainly worth a look if you’re interested in visual storytelling, but certainly not the masterpiece some claim it to be. Hopefully ‘Dame’ expands things a little bit, because despite my problems with this, I certainly look forward to seeing it.