Is Sin City the most accomplished mediocre movie in recent history? There’s no denying the sheer beauty of the thing — the ingenuity of the photography and above all the yoking of high cinema technology to an actual creative vision. The funny thing is, that creative vision comes wholly out of the source material, a series of frankly amazing Frank Miller comix, rather than belonging to the film itself. Using Miller’s panels as storyboards is a great experiment in storytelling, but the problem is that the images live differently on the printed page than they do on the screen. And if the comic books themselves were part reaction to and criticism of what passed for noir in the 1990s — “I do movies better than the movies,” Miller seemed to be announcing — then what’s the aesthetic or artistic value in a filmed version that pays slavish tribute rather than taking even a cursory stab at figuring out how the movies could go these stories one better?
If you get hold of one of the Sin City collections that’s adapted here, you’ll likely be astounded at the aggressive fidelity of the film, which duplicates not just storyline and dialogue but even, shot by shot, composition within the frame. You may also notice that the comic version feels about 10 times as edgy, dangerous and expressionistic. That’s because Miller’s drawings can verge on abstraction – they tend away from realism, with extended shadows of perfect black and a deliberate roughness that increases the stylishness of the stories but also acknowledges their borderline psychosis. (Miller’s landmark Batman yarn The Dark Knight Returns was even more effective in this regard, lending the superhero a violent modernity and sickness that Tim Burton’s vaguely nostalgic, fairy-tale inflected films completely missed.) And in their placement on the page, they influence more fluidly a reader’s temporal experience of the story in a way that Rodriguez’s film, which moves at an inexorable 24 frames per second (and stuffs a dizzying amount of exposition into a feature-film’s running time), can’t. There’s nothing rough about Sin City the film, which was shot on controlled green-screen environments with the same best-that-money-can-buy HDCAMs George Lucas used for Episode III (and boasts the same kind of glassy-eyed, disconnected performances that plagues the new Star Wars pictures). And that lends the film version a kind of glossy smugness, a level of slick self-satisfaction, that’s on some level the opposite of the Miller originals, which felt more sordid and personal than the movie can manage — you feel Miller is aware of a pathology in his own stories, while the film is aware of itself only as tremendous, splattery high-tech entertainment.
All that said, there’s still a lot to like about the movie even aside from the considerable purely visual pleasures (count among said visual pleasures the reliable presence of lovely women in various degrees of undress, such sexual confidence long a quality of hard-boiled genre fiction but increasingly absent from the Hollywood landscape, as studios strive for the PG-13 and focus-group actual nudity out of existence in favor of a continuing flood of tacky sex jokes). The actors are generally appealing, if hamstrung by the film’s poor sense of rhythm — and the big exception to that generalization is Mickey Rourke, invisible behind a pieload of prosthetics that turns him into misshapen Marv, the protagonist of Miller’s first-ever Sin City opus, a near supernaturally strong lug driven to violence that he might avenge the death of a good woman who offered him one night’s worth of love. He’s marvelous in a head-and-shoulders-above kind of way, and he’s supported by standout performances from Carla Gugino as Marv’s parole officer, Jaime King as the whore he can’t leave behind, Rutger Hauer as a corrupt cardinal (!) and a creepy, sunglassed Elijah Wood (!!) as his vilest nemesis in great scene after great scene. The mood of the comic-book originals is best matched in some extremely funny shots showing how Marv gets a kick out of the mayhem — the pain, the suffering — he creates and eventually endures. (It’s also the segment that comes closest to the horror-movie intensity the comics always flirted with, influenced as they were by German expressionist filmmakers.) Visually dazzling though it may be, nothing else in the film works up the same quasi-tragic head of steam that propels Marv’s headlong bone-breaking and flesh-chewing sprint toward the electric chair —and everything else in the film suffers badly in comparison.