Tuesday, 3 April 2012

From the archives: Sin City

This feature was originally published in late 2005 in ZERO magazine...

Comic books, graphic novels, call them what you will but Frank Miller’s ‘Sin City’ stories are amongst the most striking and original examples of the art form. They are visceral, beautiful, sexy and excruciatingly violent. The news that they were to be adapted into movies was not met with universal approval by the fan community, but as has been well proven screaming geeks on the internet wield little influence over movie producers.

“Instead of trying to turn it into a movie, which would be terrible, let’s try and turn cinema into this book.”
Robert Rodriguez.

Auteurs do not exist in popular cinema but a few people come close and one such individual is Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez is the restless director, writer and editor of the ‘Mariachi’ films and ‘From Dusk ‘Til Dawn’, the movie that made A-list material of George Clooney, tequila sexy and horror movies profitable business once more. So when Rodriguez and ‘Sin City’ were mentioned in the same sentence the movie became a substantially more appealing prospect, and his announcement that he intended to use the source material as his script and storyboards resulted in more drool spattered keyboards than the dream I had about Rick Wakeman having a stroke. Indeed it is a testament to Rodriguez’s artistic integrity that not only did he endeavour to faithfully translate Miller’s stories to celluloid, but also insisted on Miller receiving co-director’s credit, a move which was opposed by The Director’s Guild Of America. In response Rodriguez resigned from the DGA, a move that would him his next job helming the adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic science fiction fantasy ‘Princess Of Mars’, and duly credited Frank Miller as co-director prompting in 2012 a beautiful 'what-if?' scenario. Rodriguez at the time had said that he intended to give his John Carter movie the look of a moving Frank Frazetta painting.

This wasn’t Miller’s first foray into movies (he penned the lamentable screenplays for the disappointing Robocops 2 and 3) but 2005 has undoubtedly brought Miller to the masses with ‘Sin City’ conquering the world and the return to form of the Caped Crusader, ‘Batman Begins’ being heavily influenced by Miller’s own dark take on the Dark Knight in his graphic novel ‘Batman: Year One’. Little wonder then that another of his works is receiving the big budget Hollywood treatment with Zack Snyder (fresh off his debut success with Dawn Of The Dead ’04) currently filming ‘300’, based on Miller’s graphic novel of the same name depicting an episode during the Persian invasion of Greece where 300 Spartans held off a force of over 100,000 Persians at Thermopylae. It remains to be seen whether his vision will be as flawlessly adapted as was ‘Sin City’. Opinion may be divided on the 'quality' of the adaptation but 300 proved to be an even bigger worldwide hit than Sin City.

“When we started casting this strange things started happening, people were turning up who looked like my drawings.”
Frank Miller

Rodriguez is proving himself, like his compadre Tarantino before him, to be a director who can redefine actors’ careers. The sheer quality and profile of the cast of ‘Sin City’ harkens back to the ensemble disaster movies of the seventies such as ‘The Towering Inferno’ but issues such as top billing on the poster are irrelevant with Rodriguez’s artistic vision elevating the project to a level way above a simple all star vehicle like ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ and giving A-list stars and fading character actors a new dimension in which to play.

Bruce Willis has a habit of recreating himself in groundbreaking movies and his turn as the physically ailing Hartigan, a cop entering the last hour of his thirty year career, ranks alongside his portrayal of over the hill boxer Butch Coolidge. Willis’s movie star career forms a perfect arc beginning with ‘Die hard’ and charting his maturation through ‘Pulp Fiction’ and now ‘Sin City’, all his other movies form the links between these massive punctuation points.

Phoenix-like is perhaps the most appropriate way to describe Mickey Rourke’s performance as Marv, a sympathetic monster to rival Karloff’s, and the best example of acting through latex since Howard Sherman’s Bub in ‘Day of the Dead’. After a post eighties downturn in his fortunes (see ‘Harley Davison And The Marlborough Man’) and a brief career as a boxer Rourke has, with quiet dignity, been re-establishing himself as a character actor with roles in a number of well received films such as ‘Man On Fire’, ‘Spun’, Rodriguez’s own ‘Once Upon A Time In Mexico’, and as a transvestite convict in ‘The Animal Factory’. If there had been any lingering doubts that he is not one of the most charismatic and gifted actors of his generation then Marv has smashed them to a bloody and bony pulp.

‘Sin City’ is littered with flawless performances by household names, often in the smallest of roles. Rutger Hauer is onscreen for only a couple of minutes each but leaves an indelible mark in his role as the twisted Cardinal Roark. Most remarkable of all is Elijah Wood as ‘Kevin’, in terms of screen time a small role but significant and memorable as Wood defies any risk of typecasting after his several years in the public eye as a Frodo-sexual to beat the snot out of Rourke’s ‘Marv’ and disturb audiences world-wide as a sociopathic cannibal with the voice of an angel.

Brittany Murphy picks up where she left off in ‘Spun’ and again proves herself the queen of battered wife chic and Jessica Alba shows why she’s such hot Hollywood property as well as proving that she’s a really, really good dancer.

The only disappointing aspect of the casting is that Leonardo Di Caprio turned down the role of Junior/Yellow Bastard. Nick Stahl did a creditable job of creating the loathsome character but I for one would have got a real kick out of seeing Leo play a disfigured and castrated child molester.

‘Sin City’ the movie concentrates on three of Miller’s stories "The Hard Goodbye" (Marv,) "The Big Fat Kill" (Dwight and the hookers) and "That Yellow Bastard" (Hartigan and Nancy), as well as the short "The Customer is Always Right" which forms the pre-credit introduction. That sequence was filmed in one day as a test in order to show Frank Miller the possibilities of what can be achieved by making a 100% digital movie. By no means the first movie of its kind it is definitely the first to use the technology to create a living world that services the plot and the source perfectly, essentially delivering Rodriguez’s vision of converting our cinema screens into the moving image of Miller’s imagination.

Over the years we’ve seen many comic book adaptations come and go, some good ones, some colossal turds and with Hollywood desperately short on originality the comic form is increasingly ripe for the plunder, ‘A History Of Violence’ being the latest graphic novel adaptation to hit our cinema screens. Now we know it can be done right, and we know our tales of excruciating violence, bloody vengeance and hot chicks with Uzis can have artistic merit AND be mainstream.

‘Sin City’ is the way and with an unrated director’s cut on DVD released in the US in December and ‘Sin City 2’ coming in 2006 let there be plenty more light.

2012 update: Sin City 2 never happened and the terrible reception to Miller's solo directorial effort The Spirit has damaged his cache somewhat but Rodriguez has recently stated that shooting may commence in mid-2012...

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