In adapting Frank Miller's best-selling comic book series "Sin City," Robert Rodriguez has made a cynical film about murder, betrayal, decapitation, and cannibalism that happens to be beautiful to look at. With breathless editing and high-contrast black and white images lit up by flashes of color, the hyper-stylized look of "Sin City" does an admirable job at approaching the deft visuals of the comic book. If only the stories were any good.
In Sin City, the shady metropolis where Frank Miller sets his brutal tales, people come in two flavors: creeps (if they're guys) and whores (if they're women.) Perhaps that's why everybody in Hollywood seemed so eager to sign on. The cast includes Clive Owen, Benicio Del Toro, Rosario Dawson, Josh Hartnett, Mickey Rourke, Nick Stahl, Bruce Willis, Elijah Wood, Jessica Alba, Michael Madsen, and Brittany Murphy. Rodriguez' buddy Quentin Tarantino even guest-directed a sequence. The hookers and hoods show occasional moments of conscience, especially the cop played by Bruce Willis (you see, he's close to retirement), but ultimately nobody can escape the relentless maelstrom of murder.
My count in the dark screening room is probably off by a few hash marks here and there, but I can offer an approximate count of the graphic orgy of blood and violence: nine instances of torture (including two heads stuck into toilet bowls), at least ten severed heads, some of them talking like the museum pieces in "Futurama," nine severed limbs including hands, arms, a shot off ear, a bullet in the crotch, one ripped-out penis, one head bashed to a pulp, two electric chair shocks, three throats cut (one of them partially, like a "Pez dispenser"), dozens of shots to the head, including that of a deviant priest, one execution-style mass-machine-gunning, and a suicide. If you enjoy this sort of stuff, "Sin City" might be good for a kick or two, but there's no doubt that it's bad for your soul.
"Sin City" is being sold as a distillate that is taking hardboiled film noir characters and themes up to speed for the new century. But classic film noir has always been about ambiguities: temptation, guilt and innocence in a corrupt world where people face complicated moral choices. In "Sin City," nobody ever changes their minds about anything. People fall into their two-dimensional rolescorrupt cop, deceitful hussy, killer, dame, wife-beater, twisted psychopathand the drama develops accordingly. The bloody outcome of every setup is predetermined, and with all moral choices decided beforehand, there's nothing left for the denizens of Sin City but to kill, beat, rape, and torture each other according to the script. Never mind the machine guns, ninja stars, and scalpels: the most deadly thing in "Sin City" is the crushing boredom that sets in after the novelty of the visual style has worn off.