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Sin City Review (Warning, Spoilers)

Only a week after it opened, I finally got to see Sin City. After the rubbishy mess that was Constantine, I would have settled for a reasonably faithful translation from spot-colored comic to celluloid fantasy. The movie easily exceeded those expectations, even if it's not a perfect movie.

First, the positive: for those who liked Frank Miller's starkly minimalist style, the bold, dark contrasts of the film don't disappoint. I knew the plot of all four stories [1] (and let's face it, Miller's Sin City plots were always pretty thin) well before I bought the tickets, so I could sit back and admire what they'd done with the camera. For once, a comic translation felt like it was drawn, not filmed, with the actors standing out as "real" focal points in a world of flat panels. Elijah Wood as the freakishly-calm Kevin and Rutger Hauer as Cardinal Roark manage the effect particularly well: somehow, they make realistic bodies contort in animated motions. Even two hours into the film, when the effect had begun to wear thin, a few shots still startled me: "Oh, so that's how they're going to do that scene."

But while the visuals are beautiful, the timing is a problem. As other reviews have complained, the film drags, particularly in the middle. Most of this derives from the near-inexplicable decision to sandwich The Big Fat Kill between The Hard Goodbye and That Yellow Bastard. The Big Fat Kill never had much of a plot to speak of: it develops Old Town and lets Miller feature Miho, the typical annoying character that the author clearly loves. But the book was only useful in developing Sin City as a setting: Dwight's real story is told in A Dame to Kill For, which like The Hard Goodbye and That Yellow Bastard is at heart about a flawed man, his relationship with a unique woman, and resulting trouble. Whatever the other attractions of The Big Fat Kill, it's a political story with little human interest.

As a result, Clive Owen gets to look pretty, but neither he nor Rosario Dawson can make the audience give a damn about their respective characters. Indeed, some of the lines barely make sense if you don't know the backstory: when Dwight goes on about his new face and having killed a cop, you almost wish Miller could have annotated the film. And without some kind of human element, the whole Old Town storyline just gets silly: it's broads in lingerie carrying improbably amounts of military grade hardware with absolutely nowhere to carry the ammunition.

Which leads to the second flaw: the violence. Many negative reviews have blamed Roderiguez for not restraining Miller by beefing up the script and toning down the violence. I actually felt the opposite: Sin City's fight scenes remind me of Roderiguez's miserable Once Upon A Time in Mexico (or Tarantino's Kill Bill), where violence is lovingly and pointlessly fetishized. While Miller's graphic novels are brutally violent, the savagery comes in short, quick frames that one glances over as you move through the plot. [2] The final fight between Marv (Mickey Rourke) and Kevin (Elijah Wood) comes closest to the feeling of the books: sharp, edgy, loud, tense. Cut about half the frames from the other scenes and it would be just about right.

In short, it wasn't a bad film for a comic buff. The Tarantino-style violence didn't bother me too much, and if you know where it's coming from, you can ignore The Big Fat Kill's rather hollow plot and just enjoy seeing how Miller filmed Old Town and the Pits. [3] Meanwhile, just as I didn't read Sin City for the storyline--Mickey Spillane is still in print, you know--I watched the movie for the visuals, a treat right to the last snowy frames outside The Farm. But if you've not read Miller's comics, I'd recommend you pick them up before you see the movie, at the very least A Dame to Kill For. This is definitely one where you get out of it what you brought into it, and without context I'd imagine it's two hours of torture.

[1]: Besides the main three stories, the film opens with The Babe Wore Red.

[2]: Again, The Big Fat Kill stands as an exception, one more reason its inclusion in the film seems so odd.

[3]:Given Will Baude's love of Gilmore Girls, he might enjoy seeing Alexis Bledel in a less-innocent role. Actually, she does fairly well as Becky, though one almost wishes they'd left the blue eyes for... well, Blue Eyes. Actually, that might be an explanation for choosing The Big Fat Kill over A Dame to Kill For: if you're trying for an ensemble cast, it's got a lot of characters with considerable screen time.

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