by Del Harvey
“Is that the best you got?” — Marv (Mickey Rourke)
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Call it contemporary film noir with an edge, Sin City is one helluva ride. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller give us a trio of stories tied together by the very dark nature of the city itself, Basin City, and the fact that almost all of these characters have known or met each other at one time or another. Each story depicts the key moments in these comic noir character’s lives, and often their last dying breath.
Our stories follow the exploits of three central characters: Marv, Hartigan, and Dwight. Marv - Mickey Rourke under heavy make-up - is a big man whose size is matched only by his ugliness and strength. He’s a goon on a solo mission he keeps forgetting, because without his medicine he hears voices, imagines things. He’s a roughhouse who does the odd job on the dirty, but it’s not like he’s completely without morals. Marv, when cornered by the crème de la crème of Sin City’s working girls, including Rosario Dawson and Jamie King, says it succinctly: “I don’t hurt girls.” He’s pretty simple and straight-forward about life, which seems to get him into trouble. But the real trouble begins when a beautiful hooker named Goldie walks into his life. Goldie, as Marv puts it, “smells the way angels ought to smell.” After a night of love-making Marv wakes up to find Goldie dead, and knows that he was there when it happened. He also knows that, in spite of his own problems imagining things, he didn’t kill her. So he sets out to find out who did. Goldie was looking for protection and took one look at Marv and figured he was it. Only the whole thing smells of ‘set up’ to Marv, and the cops are in on it. As far as Marv’s concerned, Goldie was the nicest thing ever happened to him, and somebody’s going to pay. Other characters in Marv’s story include the absolutely beautiful Carla Gugino as his lesbian parole officer, Elijah Wood in a silent role as an equally silent and horrifying killer, and Rutger Hauer as Cardinal Roarke.
Bruce Willis is John Hartigan, a detective in his last hour on the job before retirement. He has some unfinished business to tend to, and by God he’s going to see it done in that last hour. Seems there’s a sicko out there who has taken three little girls and done something awful to them. He’s seen their bodies, their faces frozen in that last scream of pure terror. And now someone has taken poor little eleven-year-old Nancy Callahan. And he knows who it is and he’s not going to let them get away with it. He tracks the sicko - whom he hears on the hush is the son of the local Senator - to his lair - a warehouse by the docks. On a wharfside dock Hartigan takes away this sicko’s weapons - “both of them,” as he says. Even with his partner on the take and shooting him full of lead, Hartigan manages to hang on long enough until backup arrives so poor, skinny little Nancy Callahan can survive. Lying there, thinking he’s dying, Hartigan falls into a deep pit of unconsciousness thinking, “Helluva way to end a partnership. Helluva way to end a career. But at least poor little, skinny Nancy Calahan is safe.” Then he wakes up and the hard part is just beginning. He’s in jail and they want a confession, but he’s a tough, by-the-book cop who refuses to give them what they want. Meanwhile, Nancy sends him letters every Thursday every year he’s in jail, under the penname “Cordelia.” After eight years, they’re all he lives for. When they stop coming, he believes something has happened to Nancy and has to get out to find her. That’s when the story really gets good. Hartigan’s story features Jessica Alba as the all-grown-up-and-filled-out Nancy, Michael Madsen as his partner, Nick Stahl as the senator’s son, and Powers Boothe as the senator.
Dwight is a hitman with a new face and a new girl, Shellie - waiflike Brittany Murphy as you’ve never seen her before. She’s a waitress at Kadie’s, the bar where all our characters eventually end up and where Nancy works as an exotic dancer. Only Shellie’s last boyfriend, Jacky-boy, refuses to accept that she’s moved on. Jacky-boy and his four sidekicks pretty much have the run of the city. Or, they do until they meet up with Dwight. Dwight’s former girlfriend is Gail (Rosario Dawson from the other two stories), and she’s something of a leader among the Sin City babes. When Jacky-boy tries to pick up one of the girls, it’s obvious his intentions are less than honorable, and the girls retaliate. This sets off a gang war in Sin City, and everyone’s in for a world of hurt. Dwight’s story features the aforementioned Murphy and Dawson, plus Benicio Del Toro as Jacky-boy, Devon Aoki as one of Dawson’s samurai sword-wielding girls, and Michael Clarke Duncan as Manute, a leader on the police force.
Of the three stories, I found Dwight’s to be the weakest. And this is true of Miller’s books, as well. Marv’s and Hartigan’s stories stand out as the truest character stories, and as such the most intriguing and inviting, while Dwight’s seems much more contrived. Clive Owen is Dwight, and he does a great job here, showing much of the ability hinted at in his bits in the BMW short films and in minor roles in The Bourne Identity and Gosford Park. Bruce Willis as detective John Hartigan channels Humphrey Bogart on his toughest, darkest day. Willis retains his charm and style no matter how many scars you give him, no matter how much you beat him, no matter how much make-up they put on him to make him look older than his 50 years. He’s a class act all the way. Mickey Rourke’s Marv is the stand-out amongst our anti-heroes. Even under the heavy make-up, Rourke exudes a darkness that smolders. He embodies his character and gives Marv the kind of lifelike qualities that make us want to know what he will do next, what will he get himself into, and how will he get out of it? Rourke shows the kind of acting talent hinted at early in his career in films like Rumblefish and Year of the Dragon, then later in character roles in films like The Rainmaker and Get Carter. He makes us believe that a big guy like Marv can be monsterously cruel and gentle as a lamb all at the same time. He sells us on the unlikely scene of a big lug carrying an unconscious woman over his shoulder to another woman’s house, and their smiling exchange of, “Hi, Nancy, got any beers?” only to be met with, “Sure, Marv! Who’s the dame?” Dwight can’t quite sell that kind of act, but Rourke makes Marv the real deal. And he’s stand-out fantastic.
I watched this screening with co-Film Monthly writer Gary Schultz, who made the comment, “Sin City is like black and white masturbation with a broken mayonnaise jar - so good, so painful.” Uh, yeah.
Sin City isn’t for the kiddies. It’s got blood by the bucketful and some pretty damn hot, if brief, nudity. Still, it isn’t every day you get to see lithe Jamie King or the pneumatic curves of Carla Gugino in all their fleshy glory. Oh, and the profanity. God love the profanity.
Sin City is a dark place of Frank Miller’s imagination, whose characters are pulp in nature and often desperate by the pure fact of existence. Miller penned and drew the six Sin City comics. He first gained notice drawing Peter Parker for the Spider-man comics, and went on to draw and write for Daredevil and Batman. He is credited with reviving the dying comic career of this icon by focusing on the grimmest side of The Dark Knight’s nature. And it is in large part thanks to him that we will see a new, reborn Batman Begins this year; for, without his version, Goyer and Nolan’s film would be a lot more cartoonish and a lot less dark. Miller’s first screenplays were for the equally dark Robocop and Robocop 2, which are quite similar to Batman’s story of a ruined anti-hero seeking vengeance agains evil.
For sheer cinematic exuberance, I have to give Sin City high ranking among the films I’ve seen thus far this year. Its biggest flaw, for me, was the soundtrack; if any film screams for a dark, 50’s style backdrop, this is it. But that aside, Sin City is a mesmerizing example of contemporary film noir, and one helluva ride. And, as Marv says, “Walk down the right back alley in Sin City, and you can find anything…”
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly and a screenwriter and film teacher living in Chicago.
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