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Sin City Review

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by Casimir Harlow Apr 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    Sin City Review
    “Walk down the right back alley in Sin City and you can find anything.”

    Mickey Rourke was in line to be the next Marlon Brando. Back in the Eighties he had the charm, charisma, good looks, masculinity and rebelliousness to pull it off. Working with Directors like Deer Hunter's Michael Cimino and The Godfather's Francis Ford Coppola, he made a number of varied movies that consistently showcased his superior talents, the pinnacle of which was Alan Parker's Angel Heart, where he held his own against the great Robert DeNiro. Then, all of a sudden, he disappeared from mainstream cinema, outlawed due to his bad boy antics and speak-his-mind attitude which, more often than not, resulted in huge confrontations with both directors and co-stars. In light of his despondency with the Hollywood scene, he chose to return to his original true passion, boxing, and carved out a remarkable no-loss series of fights - especially when you consider his age - before being forcibly retired for neurological reasons. Several bouts of somewhat dodgy facial reconstruction later - along with some ongoing therapy sessions - and he attempted to return to Hollywood, the world from which he was disavowed. At a time when many of the macho pre-Millennium heroes had all-but disappeared (from Schwarzenegger and Stallone to the likes of Seagal and Van Damme) and been replaced by restrained, somewhat half-heartedly macho, alternatives, a world where the wimpish likes of Orlando Bloom were taking the lead in inappropriate movies and where films like Harry bloody Potter ruled the Box Office, how on earth did a macho, masculine middle-aged ex-boxer, who could have been a contender, hope to find success once again? The answer is one word: Marv. For Mickey Rourke was Marv and Marv was Sin City. And before he was touted for an Oscar in The Wrestler and all the big roles started pouring in, he made this low-budget, swiftly-filmed indie flick, Sin City, which proved to be one of the most innovative movies of 2005.

    “No reason at all to play it quiet. No reason to play it any way but my way.”

    Over 18 years ago, acclaimed graphic novel writer and artist Frank Miller created the, almost completely black and white, fictional world of Basin City ('Sin City) and all of the characters that reside therein. One of his first tales was simply called Sin City and revolved around the character of Marv. Five major books were added to the collection, telling stories about various different residents of 'Sin City, along with a collection of short stories. For many years Miller was approached to have his work adapted for the Big Screen, but refused to give up his 'baby' because it was so precious to him. That was until Robert Rodriguez, the man behind the Mariachi trilogy and From Dusk Till Dawn, started hounding him with the intention of making the ultimate Sin City movie. Persuaded by a role as co-director and by the fact that Rodriguez knew just how to use modern film technology to make the transition almost seamless from page to screen, the project was set in motion and turned out to be a relatively low budget enterprise which cost a fraction of what a standard blockbuster would cost to produce and ended up being often far superior, in terms of its striking black and white visual style, punchy script, superior direction, memorable characters and stand-out performances.

    The theatrical release of Sin City was a two-hour long movie which combined three main books from Frank Miller's collection, along with a couple of additional scenes to bookend the narrative. Although they played well together and allowed Rodriguez to play around with the timeline in quite an interesting Tarantino-esque style, the books were originally stand-alone works and were intended to be read and seen as such. Thus, for the original special edition DVD release (and now the new Blu-ray release), Rodriguez gave us not only the theatrical cut but also a second disc with each individual story separated out and capable of being watched independently. In addition, these standalone versions were extended to included the other footage that was shot because the theatrical cut occasionally abbreviated the stories from the original books.

    “Ask yourself if that corpse of a slut is worth dying for.”

    “Worth dying for. Worth killing for. Worth going to hell for.”

    At the heart of Sin City is the brutish, unstoppable anti-hero Marv and his one-man war waged out of a pure sense of revenge. You see, after a single night of passion, Marv wakes to find the girl he was with, the golden-haired Goldie, dead and the police surrounding the building. Realising that he has been set-up, he fights his way out and takes to the streets, going on a rampage of destruction and torturing and killing his way to the top of the ladder of corruption in order to find out the truth behind the murder of his love, Goldie. Along the way he fights political and religious corruption, hitmen, private armies and even cannibals, also tackling the demons within him that came from years of fighting in the war.

    Renamed The Hard Goodbye (I assume in order to distinguish it from the other titles, because previously this tale was simply called Sin City), this is easily Miller's best work. With the extended cut we get to see a more complete version of a tale which could have, realistically, been used to make a much longer movie that could have potentially played as a stand-alone film in the cinemas. I assume that fears of both top billing Mickey Rourke back in 2005, and hedging all of your bets on this one anti-hero character and his bloody vendetta forced Rodriguez and Miller to compromise when producing their first Sin City tale and integrate it with some of the other stories (also allowing different, more Box Office-friendly names like Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba to guarantee success). The extended cut allows you to watch The Hard Goodbye on its own but, with a runtime of only thirty-five minutes (if you take out the credits), it is still too short a version of the original work (in my opinion). However, it is a minor complaint as the end result is better than anybody, including Frank Miller himself, could have expected and to ask for more is just a reflection of 20-20 hindsight on the success of the enterprise. We should be glad that they took the time to separate out the stories into their own individual entities and it is clear that The Hard Goodbye has become the tale which fans returned to most often.

    “When I need to find something out, I just go out and look for somebody that knows more than me and I go and I ask them. Sometimes, I ask pretty hard.”

    In terms of acting, The Hard Goodbye is basically all about Marv and, as I've already stated, Mickey Rourke IS Marv. Using every ounce of his method-acting skills, he turns out arguably the performance of his career (pre-Wrestler) and the result was that we got some of the best speeches and scenes from the entire movie. From his torturing interrogation of a hit man, to his powerful explanation to his parole officer about what is happening, to his semi-psychotic voice-over that allows us to get inside this guy's head, this unique character has been perfectly translated to the Big Screen by a man who nobody ever thought would return to Hollywood. Although he could have easily carried a whole movie by himself, particularly in such a heavyweight role, he had plenty of support from other recognisable faces, providing memorable turns.

    Carla Cugino, who you will probably recognise from the cancelled US sci-fi series, Threshold, is strong and sexy as Marv's parole officer, Lucille and gives a great performance alongside Rourke. Jaime King, who you might recognise from the likes of Bulletproof Monk, is given a great role as Marv's lost love, Goldie, initially just as a goddess figure that Marv pines over but then in a more developed role as the tale unravels. Rutger Hauer appears, to provide a powerful rendition of an important figurehead in Marv's quest and we get a surprising turn from Lord of the Rings' Elijah Wood as a mute assassin - the very last role you would expect Frodo to take on and yet he looks perfect for the twisted part. There are also plenty of other familiar faces who pop up, but their characters often have bigger parts in the other segments so I will discuss them as and when it is appropriate.

    “I got in a fight with some cops.”

    “Didn't happen to kill any of them, did you?”

    “Not that I know of. But they know they've been in a fight, that's for damn sure.”

    The second tale concerns Dwight, a one-time hitman and one-time private detective who is laying low after having plastic surgery in order to avoid a murder charge. Dwight does not have a lot of luck with women, as they are normally the reason behind his getting into trouble. This time he has gotten himself involved with a barmaid, Shellie. Which would have been fine were it not for the fact that Shellie's ex-boyfriend, Johnny Boy, is a mean drunk. So when Dwight tries to defend Shellie's honour, he actually manages to aggravate the situation further, ending up having to chase Johnny Boy into Old Town, the Red Light District of 'Sin City, in a desperate attempt to prevent him from causing trouble to its residents, who also happen to be friends of his. Unfortunately Dwight does not fully realise the significance of what he is getting into until it is too late.

    The Big Fat Kill was actually not the first Dwight tale in Miller's collection, but it was the one that they chose to include in this collection. Easily the weakest of the three main stories offered here (and arguably one of the weakest of Miller's works) its major faults lie in the fact that Dwight is generally his own worst enemy. Much of what happens in the Dwight stories, happens because he has done something stupid, rather than because he has been set up, or framed. This is no exception. I actually think that the prequel story, A Dame To Kill For (which is the main basis for the long overdue Sin City 2) is a far superior tale, explaining why Dwight is hiding from the authorities, how the character of Manute lost an eye and allowing for more of Marv. Still, since Sin City as a whole is superior to many comparable creations, my criticisms have to be put into context. The fact that The Big Fat Kill is not as good as the others did not stop it from being pretty damn entertaining.

    “I love hit men. No matter what you do to them, you don't feel bad.”

    The central focus here was, of course, Dwight, who is played by Clive Owen. Owen turned in a perfectly solid performance, although his roles in movies like Croupier and Closer were the ones that should really have secured his place as the next Bond. Here he was ably assisted by the likes of Death Proof's Rosario Dawson, looking striking as the leather-strapped sub-machine-gun-wielding valkyrie, Gail, Brittany Murphy on particularly good form as the classic film noir dame, Shellie and ex-model Devon Aoki's turn as the silent samurai-sword wielding ninja, deadly little Miho. Miho is probably one of the coolest characters in the books and it was wonderful to see her so perfectly brought to life on the Big Screen. In terms of opponents, we were introduced to the aforementioned Manute, a big, bulky, hulk of a bodyguard/enforcer, played by the suitably huge Michael Clarke Duncan at his deep, gravely best. There was also Johnny-Boy, played by the great Benicio Del Toro, who was made to look the same - and yet different - by clever use of prosthetics to accentuate his features. Movies like The Way of the Gun, Traffic and 21 Grams had shown Del Toro to be one of the coolest actors on the planet and it was great to have him on board for this project.

    The third story was about Hartigan, a tough Dirty Harry-like veteran cop on the brink of retirement, who has one last case to resolve. Unfortunately this particular case involves corrupt cops, corrupt politicians, paedophilia and a young girl called Nancy, who Hartigan has sworn to protect, no matter what the cost. Many years after their first meeting, when the threat to her life is once again renewed, it is up to this ancient hero to take up his guns one last time and go into battle, facing up against a disfigured nemesis from his past. Entitled That Yellow Bastard, this third tale was another superior work from Miller (probably my joint-second-favourite of his books, although inferior to Marv's story), superbly dark and oppressive and relentlessly brutal.

    “Will that give you satisfaction my son? Killing a helpless old man?”

    “The killing? No, no satisfaction. But everything up until the killing will be a gas.”

    Bruce Willis was given the opportunity of taking centre stage in it and, on the eve of returning to his dirty white vest for the enjoyable Die Hard 4.0, it was only right that his role should be so much like the John McClane's of his past. Incorruptible, almost unstoppable and determined to fight for justice, no matter what the cost, Willis' Hartigan was almost a walking cliché of mainstay cop dramas. Somehow though, Willis managed to take all of the often hackneyed and clichéd dialogue and turn it into a purposeful one last stand by an aged tough guy who has sworn to protect the innocent until his dying day. The innocent girl in question is Nancy, played by the indisputably beautiful Jessica Alba. In one of the few instances where the movie differs from the book, her character of a stripper is actually never seen naked on screen and whilst this is a disappointment to many Alba fans, it is also a disappointment to many Miller purists who thought that they should have retained the authenticity of the original. Arguably, it was a mistake, but somehow it did result in Alba's character of Nancy (who was supposed to represent untainted innocence) staying more pure. Playing opposite these two central characters we had the likes of Reservoir Dogs' Michael Madsen (another great character actor who disappeared from our screens for far too long) and Terminator 3's Nick Stahl, who was almost unrecognisable in his role as the (literally) Yellow Bastard of the title.

    Rounding off the original Theatrical cut there were two bookend tales centring on Josh Harnett's mysterious operative and these have also been compiled together (somewhat inappropriately, given that the second tale was made up by Miller just to round off the movie) and presented as a fourth option on this two-disc Blu-ray release.

    “When his eyes go dead the hell I send him to will seem like heaven after what I've done to him.”

    As I've stated, these special separated volumes of the three main stories all have extra footage. For fans who have seen the Theatrical cut (and perhaps read the books), you will notice that here we get some key sequences that were absent in the cinemas. In The Hard Goodbye there is a touching scene where Marv goes to visit his mother and an extra moment where we get to meet Weevil and fully understand why the hit-men come to pay Marv a visit. In The Big Fat Kill we have a more logical introductory sequence with Shellie being overcome by the gang who invade her flat, more Jackie Boy in Old Town and a significant addition to the final big kill of the title, with more Miho (although this bit was not actually from the books). For That Yellow Bastard there are extra shots whilst Hartigan is recovering and a key extra sequence involving Lucille, giving her character more depth than she had time for in just The Hard Goodbye. There's also more of the bumbling and verbose hit-men talking about their love of Ferraris. All in all, these are superior individual versions but the stories do work pretty well as a whole (especially since the separated versions are still not quite long enough for my liking). Having two discs, one with each cut, just gives us the best of both worlds and both Miller and Rodriguez should have been applauded for their dedication to their work in producing what has lasted as being a truly ultimate edition.

    When it comes down to it, Frank Miller was one of the frontrunners (alongside Watchman's Alan Moore) in a revolution that saw graphic novels getting better recognition as an adult form of artistic representation. These Sin City tales were not colourful comic-book tales of superheroes dressed in tights and fighting for truth, justice and the American way - these are gritty, dark fables about combating pure evil and the shady anti-heroes who are the only people equipped to do the job. Rodriguez took Miller's work and brought the technology to convert it almost indistinguishably to the Big Screen in its pure black and white (literally film noir) style, recruiting an almost endless list of big names to carry the superior stories that he chose to tell this time around. And I say 'this time around' because I still hope that we can expect more from the world of 'Sin City in the very near future. Not one but two sequels were originally in production, with many of the cast returning for earlier and later tales of their characters' exploits, but they still haven't sealed the deal with all the big names required to make it happen. Still, I am eagerly anticipating them, not least because Mickey Rourke's Marv should be returning to kick some more ass. Fantastic.

    “This is blood for blood and by the gallons. This is the old days, the bad days, the all-or-nothing days. They're back. There's no choices left. And I'm ready for war.”