Film

HARD-BOILED BURLESQUE

Noir guys and ninja dolls slug it out in the pulp fiction depths of Sin City

Brian D. Johnson April 4 2005
Film

HARD-BOILED BURLESQUE

Noir guys and ninja dolls slug it out in the pulp fiction depths of Sin City

Brian D. Johnson April 4 2005

HARD-BOILED BURLESQUE

Film

Noir guys and ninja dolls slug it out in the pulp fiction depths of Sin City

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

I'M JUST BACK from Sin City, and I’ve got this voice burning a hole through my skull like a hot magnum slug. A voice spitting blood and block letters. It’s screwy. Sounds like Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and Clive Owen rolled into one. The sound of a brain making a fist. A knuckle sandwich in your head. The Voice keeps telling me to write like Frank Miller. Fat chance. He’s the comic book artist who created Sin City, a town of guns and blood and breasts like bowling balls. The good guys are tortured brutes

with eyes of shattered glass. The bad guys are cannibal rapist killer freaks. The women are cowgirl strippers and ninja hookers who’ll make you wish you were never born if you look at them the wrong way.

It’s a spaghetti western in urban drag, but Miller, 48, makes cliché dead cool. He’s the guy who recast Batman as the Dark Knight. He draws in burlesque black and white, with harrowing alleys of perspective, slivers of light sunk deep in the soul. And his writing has the smack of a pulp novelist juiced on bourbon, with lines like, “Go ahead, doll, shoot me now or get the hell out of my way.”

Robert Rodriguez—the film’s co-director, co-producer, cinematographer, editor and composer—is a hard-core Miller fan. He’s

the hotshot who made El Mariachi, From Dusk Til Dawn and Spy Kids. He didn’t just want to adapt Miller’s comics, but to translate them, panel by panel. So he made Miller his co-director, which meant quitting the Directors Guild of America—they’ve got rules against sharing credit with some clown who’s never shot a frame of film. Rodriguez,

RODRIGUEZ,

a hard-core Miller fan, didn’t want to adapt his comics, but to translate them, panel by panel

36, said Miller’s comic books were movies, directed in ink. Using three Sin City books as storyboards, he shot the actors against a green screen, then created the backgrounds with computers, so he could replicate Miller’s whacked-out angles. He even called the picture Frank Miller’s Sin City—like Bram Stoker’s Dracula. So there could be no doubt.

They say Sin City is the next Pulp Fiction. It’s got the same kind of triple-play plot that folds back on itself, and more sicko torture than Abu Ghraib prison. Once again Bruce Willis gets stuck in a dungeon. Quentin Tarantino contributes a scene as a “guest director.” And you can’t imagine Sin City existing without Pulp Fiction—or samurai movies, spaghetti westerns, and film noir. But it still looks like nothing you’ve ever seen.

After Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Sin City takes rhapsodic violence to the next level. It’s shot in hyperbolic black and white, with the odd slash of colour for a red dress,

a red car, blue eyes or blood. Sometimes the blood is white—or yellow in the case of Yellow Bastard (Nick Stahl), a Golem-like psycho who can only be aroused by the sound of a woman’s scream. This cartoon is not for kids, and not for all adults. You need a taste for carnage, decapitation, castration and dismemberment. There’s a scene where a guy loses a hand, then tries to pry the fingers off his gun with his teeth. Later, as Willis keeps plowing his fist through a man’s head, we hear him thinking out loud: “After a while, all I’m doing is pounding wet chunks of bone into the floorboards. So I stop.”

Willis plays one of three hardboiled heroes who like to talk to themselves. Hartigan, a scarred cop with a bum ticker, rescues an 11year-girl from being raped and murdered by a senator’s son. She grows up to be a stripper (Jessica Alba), and so hot for him he feels like a dirty old man. Then there’s Marv (Mickey Rourke), a hulk with a face like a side of smoked meat. He’s avenging the death of a hooker, the only love he’s ever known. Marv is up against Kevin, a cannibal who eats everything but the heads—played by a calm, creepy Elijah Wood, now trying to prove he’s a long way from Middle Earth.

Finally, there’s Dwight (Clive Owen), a former photojournalist who helps a posse of street-fighting streetwalkers bring down a bent cop called Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro). Dwight doesn’t say much, just keeps asking for a “hardtop with a decent engine and big trunk.” He’s having it off with the hooker boss, Gail (Rosario Dawson), who wears stiletto boots up to here, a few strips of black leather, some mesh, a dog collar, an Uzi—and still looks pretty much naked.

I end up talking to Dawson on the phone. Not my idea. I wanted Rodriguez or Miller, figured they’d have things to say. But this is Hollywood, and the only one available is the hooker boss. She’s 25.1 thought she’d sound like her character. All slow and sultry. Big surprise. On the phone from Los Angeles, she talks a mile a minute, and sounds as foxy as an auctioneer on crack.

So how do you act like a comic book warrior whore? “You really have to act outside the box, and wearing the outfit puts you in that position. There’s posing and posturing and bits of weird dialogue that are really hard to throw out there because they’re almost campy. Gail’s very clear about who she is. She’s just fierce, an outrageous human

being. I like how expressive she is. She’s not afraid to growl and bite somebody’s neck off.” Uh huh. So what’s Miller like? “We go out for beers all the time,” she says. “I get his whole broads and blues thing. He’s that classic film-noir, talking-in-your-head kind of guy.” Oh, one of those. “Frank’s really insightful, man. He sits in his room and thinks about this stuff really deeply. He’s not superficial. He really gets it.”

I want to get Miller. So I go looking for his books, but find they’re sold out everywhere. Finally I end up in a comic book store run by a big bruiser in shorts with tattooed calves the size of hams. He’s got just two copies of Sin City left. I buy That Yellow Bastard. And as I flip through it, it’s like watch-

ing the movie all over again, in stop action.

I still don’t know what to make of the film. It’s a brilliant piece of stone-cold style. Sin City is so thrilled with its own genre-bending invention, it can’t connect to anything outside of it. Weirdly, the best actors are the ones who are the least realistic, the ones who act stiff, like cartoons—notably Del Toro, who’s almost unrecognizable, and Owen, who’s like a rock. Sin City didn’t make me laugh or cry. Not even close. I didn’t give a damn about the characters. The story was just another cartoon of good squashing evil. But as I watched, with prudish concern that Rodriguez, Tarantino and their band of Lost Boys were cooking up new weapons of cinematic destruction, I was seduced by the beauty and rigour of it all. The images stuck—the surreal explosions of white blood, the licorice-black silhouettes. Like some retro-vision of the future, Sin City has—for better or worse—pushed the movies past yet another point of no return. I?il