Sin City: Faux Noir

Frank Miller’s Sin City is a movie with a lot going for it. It has a really impressive and pretty unique visual style, excepting the poor CG cars. It has a skilled cast and crew.

Co-director Robert Rodriguez honed his action skills in his El Mariachi trilogy, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn and other films. There’s even a car chase directed by pop culture sponge and action addict Quentin Tarantino. Bruce Willis, no stranger to tough guy roles, lends an air of integrity and desperation to his hard-boiled and disgraced police detective. Mickey Rourke puts in a heartfelt performance as Marv, sort of Lenny from Of Mice and Men trying to avenge the death of a hooker who might not even be dead.

Clive Owen’s murderer with a new face brings a snarl and a charming psychosis, as he converses with Benicio Del Toro’s creepy severed head. Rutger Hauer and Elijah Wood even have memorable but brief roles as an insane, power-hungry clergyman and his serial-murdering cannibalistic ward. Unfortunately, aside from Jessica Alba’s earnest but slutty Nancy, the other women (Brittany Murphy, Jaime King, Rosario Dawson) do a pretty poor job.

It’s not necessarily their fault, though, because the film has some serious problems. Frank Miller’s involvement is both blessing and curse. He certainly has his own idiosyncratic brand of comic book storytelling, and it’s hard to argue with his reinventions of Daredevil, Batman, and his contribution to changing Wolverine from a psycho killer into a failed gaijin samurai. But his hard-boiled tough guy complex brings with it a ton of baggage that ultimately undermines the film noir style they were clearly going for. Sin City has the look and the voice-overs, but it botches the content.

Miller’s dialogue is at times just over the top, but more often, laughably campy. And it’s not even because he’s a comic book writer. Bendis, Whedon, Kirkman and others prove comics can have good dialogue.

Speaking of campy, it is hard to tell if we’re meant to take the film seriously or not. Maybe it’s an artifact of following the comic book to a T instead of reinventing it for the screen the way Burton’s Batman or Raimi’s Spider-Man did. I can suspend my disbelief enough to believe in a guy in a heavy rubber costume goes out at night and beats up criminals and I can believe a shy but good-looking kid can swing from buildings on spider web. I can’t believe a guy without any kind of silly superpowers can stand right back up after getting run over by a car moving at high speed three times. Not even Lenny.

The audience probably isn’t the only one wondering how serious this is supposed to be. It seems like some of the actors were struggling with it. Some of the performances (like Clive Owen and Bruce Willis) play it dead straight, while some go for pure cheese, especially the women and the comical Irish terrorists.

This brings up perhaps Sin City’s greatest weakness: its inconsistency. One minute it’s a dead serious detective drama, and the next it’s a goofy over the top super violent action movie. While the connected vignette structure of Pulp Fiction helped it, the same structure drags Sin City down. The individual stories are hardly related at all and jump around confusingly in time. It would have helped the movie to focus on one story and flesh it out, preferably the Hartigan and Nancy tale, although it must be said the Yellow Bastard was also pretty goofy.

And speaking of laughable, you can’t write about Sin City without mentioning its depiction of women. One of the lynchpins of film noir is the femme fatale. Noir was a post World War II reaction to men coming home from war in Europe and Asia to find that their women did just fine for themselves without men.

Feelings of uselessness and paranoia set in quickly, and the femme fatale is a reflection of that. She doesn’t need men, and she has no problem manipulating them with her sexuality. And she always, always leads them to ruin. The opening scene of the movie is the perfect example of how Miller misunderstands noir. The sexy siren lures the man in andâÂ?¦ he kills her. What? She should be killing him, not the other way around.

But this is more than just Miller misunderstanding the style of film he’s so desperate to emulate. Miller clearly has women issues, because there is not one woman in the film who isn’t beaten by her lover, shot, chopped up, eaten, raped, kidnapped, or otherwise murdered or mutilated. Maybe this is supposed to make it more hard-boiled, but if it were, women would be killing too. And then there’s the heavily armed hookers and Miho, who has been transformed into a Kill Bill reject. Look, these are not femme fatales.

These hookers are always hostile and not the least bit inviting or sexy. In fact, every time they planted a bared cheek on the screen the entire audience laughed at the ridiculous, unsubtle attempt at sexuality. That is not sexy. That is offering up a chunk of meat. Only the most childish or depraved would take this bait. Everyone else would be insulted by it, or just laugh, as the audience did.

Furthermore, if these hookers are such strong fighters and so well armed, why exactly are they hookers? Couldn’t they do something else more profitable where they don’t have to live in back alleys and have sex with any man who wants to? They could be mercenaries, they could be assassins, or they could just plain leave.

In real life people become criminals because they’re forced to or because there are really compelling rewards. Lots of money fast and easy, for one. Considering the slum they live in, that’s not what they’re getting. Drug dealers drive nice cars! If there’s no pimps forcing them to stay, and the cops and mafia leave them alone, why stay? Go move to a suburb or something!

Either way, they’re no femme fatales. If my choices are a psycho with an AK-47 howling in the night or Barbara Stanwyck showing me her anklet while her husband’s gone and I’m holding insurance papers, guess who I’m going to pick? If I’m going to be ruined by a woman, it better be a dame worth dying for, one who I’m head over heels for, totally unable to resist, not some random heavily armed hooker that died 20 seconds into the film. Frank Miller doesn’t get it and maybe in this case, the charges that comic books are emotionally and sexually stunted around age 13 are true.

Sin City could have been a good movie, but it has inconsistent directing, inconsistent writing, inconsistent acting, and some pretty questionable interpretations of the genre it intended to honor. None of that can take away from the amazing visual style, but the style alone does not make it a film worth watching.

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