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Frank Miller's Sin City

(2005) *** 1/2 R
126 min. Dimension Films. Director: Robert Rodriguez. Cast: Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Benicio Del Toro, Brittany Murphy, Clive Owen, Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, Rosario Dawson, Alexis Bledel, Carla Gugino, Michael Clarke Duncan, Rutger Hauer, Powers Boothe, Marley Shelton, Nick Stahl, Michael Madsen, Nicky Katt, Jaime King.

Robert Rodriguez deserves mad props for exalting graphic novelist Frank Miller. The director—known for El Mariachi, From Dusk Till Dawn and the Spy Kids trilogy—decided to adapt Miller's Sin City stories by strictly following his graphic novels as if they were storyboards from God. The director felt so strongly that Miller's eye should qualify him for a directing credit that Rodriguez sacrificed his membership in the Director's Guild of America in order to co-credit Miller.

The million-dollar question about Sin City: is the old saw true? Are comic books ready-made storyboards for movies, if filmmakers would only follow them? Frank Miller's Sin City is a resounding "Maybe." Duplicating each panel of a comic book does not guarantee duplicating its impact, and while the movie is, in most respects, a genre "fanboy"'s wet dream, it turns out to have a significantly different feel than Miller's books.

Miller's stark, defiantly black-and-white pages suggest ultraviolent, pitch-black retakes from Hollywood's noir era, if Paul Muni and John Garfield had taken steroids. The stories often bristle with rueful humor, but always ooze sadness and pain. Rodriguez understands all this, but some of his choices "cut" Miller's potency in favor of Tarantinoid coolness (Quentin Tarantino, credited as "Guest Director," even helms a scene between Clive Owen and a curiously indisposed Benicio Del Toro).

If Frank Miller's Sin City feels like nothing so much as Pulp Fiction 2, that will be more than enough for most audiences. A star-power ensemble pumps up the film, which retells, anthology-style, three of Miller's graphic novels: The Hard Goodbye (née Sin City), The Big Fat Kill, and That Yellow Bastard. A fourth story, "The Customer is Always Right," stars Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton, and serves as the opening stinger, a la Twilight Zone: The Movie—it's actually Rodriguez's "test" footage for the George Lucas-Kerry Conran "green screen" approach that allows him to shoot first, add the sets later (in a computer).

Miller launched his franchise with The Hard Goodbye, and the story makes the greatest impact on film, in good and bad ways. Rodriguez finds himself at his most fetishistic here, packing star Mickey Rourke into prosthetics to become Marv, Miller's alpha male. The larger-than-life bruiser of Basin City adheres to noir tradition by relocating his brain to below his belt. After falling hard for a dame named Goldie (Jaime King), who, unbeknownst to him, was a hooker, Marv wakes up to find her dead. With new purpose, Marv won't rest until the men responsible—including an adventurously cast Elijah Wood—pay with their lives.

Rourke's knowingly overripe performance is a hoot and a holler (question: should The Hard Goodbye be a hoot? never mind). Rourke plays off of his own reputation as damaged goods, and lovingly spits Miller's best hard-boiled lines, like "I'll die laughing if I know I've done one thing right" and "I've been killing my way to the truth ever since." It's this sort of iconic tough-guy deadpan that is the currency of Sin City, spent on sax and sirens, sex (dames of the angel and whore varieties, sometimes in the same busty body) and violence (torture inflicted for pleasure that blurs emotional and sexual gratification in uber-manly fashion).

Almost all of the film's males talk in the same raspy tenor, like Del Toro in the "Big Fat Kill" episode. He plays Jackie Boy, a seriously compromised cop that attracts the ire of Owen's ex-con Dwight by roughing up the tough-as-nails women of "Old Town": waitress Shellie (Brittany Murphy) and street-walkers Gail (Rosario Dawson), Miho (Devon Aoki), and Becky (Alexis Bledel). This chapter gets the least traction, even as it seems to eat the largest portion of the film's running time.

The leaner, meaner "That Yellow Bastard" story casts Bruce Willis as the gravelly Hartigan, a literally and figuratively scarred cop with a bum ticker. He just can't quite retire without wrapping up a doozy of a case: the kidnap of a little girl named Nancy Callahan. The bizarre path of the plot involves a freakish, yellow-skinned rapist (Nick Stahl), an endangered stripper (Jessica Alba), and stomach-churning acts of violence rooted in those heart-wrenching emotional depths.

The effect of all this is dazzling in exactly the way that Miller's hard-set-concrete narrative isn't. Splashes of color offset Miller's chiaroscuro pictograms: red satin, blue car, yellow bastard. The hyperbole of a frame frozen on paper goes over the top in full motion celluloid: cars leaping off of the pavement and bodies flying on impact with brutal force. Rourke's makeup likewise overkills the audience: on paper, Miller's Marv design was expressive of the character's tough existence; on film, it looks like ten pounds of makeup masking a hard-working actor.

So Rodriguez can hold us at arm's length where Miller sucked us in with all the seductiveness of one of his femmes fatale. I'll confess that the crisp digital projection I saw probably worsened this problem--I'll bet good old-fashioned film puts the edge on. But how can we look too terribly askance at a film this distinctly different from the multiplex norm? Sin City is unapologetically retrograde, sexist, and gleefully sadistic. It's also nostalgic and trend-setting, involving and repellent, pitiable and fearful in the language we go to the movies to learn. The old cop line "There's nothing to see here" hardly applies to Sin City.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround

Street date: 5/1/2009

Distributor: Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Disney's spectacular Blu-ray reissue of Sin City has it all: a spotless, ultra-sharp hi-def transfer, with hi-def sound to match; the theatrical cut; the 142m "Recut/Extended/Unrated Version," which offers all four stories in chronological order; new hi-def bonus features; and all previously available bonus features. It's a definitive set that fans should have no trouble embracing.

One Disc One, you'll find the theatrical cut and two rollicking commentaries, one with Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, and one with Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. A third audio track features a recording of the Austin audience reaction.

The new hi-def bonus features include a highly recommended CinExplore Feature that, played with the Rodriguez-Miller commentary, offers comic book artwork and conceptual artwork to illustrate the pre-production process as you listen to the filmmakers' insights.

Disc Two includes the extended cut, and kicks off its bonuses with the new Blu-ray exclusive "Kill 'Em Good: Interactive Comic Book" (HD), which brings Miller's Sin City graphic novel The Hard Goodbye to life and includes interactive sections (such as one in which you can drive Marv's getaway car).

"How It Went Down: Convincing Frank Miller to Make the Film" (5:41, SD) gathers Miller, Rodriguez, Josh Hartnett, Tarantino, Carla Gugino, Bruce Willis, prop master Steve Joyner, and Benicio Del Toro for interviews, while "Special Guest Director: Quentin Tarantino" (7:13, SD) has comments by Rodriguez, Tarantino, producer Elizabeth Avellan, Miller, and Del Toro.

"A Hard Top with a Decent Engine: The Cars of Sin City" (7:34, SD) includes observations by Miller and transportation coordinator Cecil D. Evans, who gives us a guided tour of the cars. "Booze, Broads and Guns: The Props of Sin City" (10:57, SD) features Joyner, Rodriguez, Miller, property master Caylah Eddleblute, 3D CNC modeler/graphic designer Troy Engel, prop sculptor Brandon Campbell, Devon Aoki, and Tarantino.

"Making the Monsters: Special Effects Make-Up" (9:04, SD) sits down special makeup effects supervisor Greg Nicotero, Miller, Rodriguez, Tarantino, Del Toro, and Nick Stahl. "Trench Coats & Fishnets: The Costumes of Sin City" (7:34, SD) rounds up costume supervisor Nina Proctor, Rodriguez, Miller, Rosario Dawson, and Brittany Murphy.

The "Teaser & Theatrical Trailer" (4:01 with "Play All" option, SD) turn up, and under Rodriguez Special Features (58:17, SD), you'll find "15-Minute Flic School," "All Green Screen Version," "The Long Take," "Sin City: Live in Concert," and "10 Minute Cooking School."

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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