Original, mortal and deadly

Frank Miller’s popular comic book ‘Sin City’ makes it to the screen

Tom Horgen

E

Every once in a while, a new film comes along that rewrites the language of cinema.

Quentin Tarantino did it with “Pulp Fiction.” George Lucas did it with “Star Wars.” And way back when, D.W. Griffith did it with the racist “The Birth of a Nation.” These movies didn’t actually give us something wholly original, but they took what was, twisted it and gave us a new way of looking at the cinema.

With “Sin City,” rebel filmmaker Robert Rodriguez is putting a gun to the head of traditional filmmaking – and even the latest advances in special effects – and blowing it away.

“Sin City” is that nuts.

The film’s innovation hinges on Rodriguez’s decision to tackle the film’s comic-book source material in a way that hasn’t been done before. Frank Miller’s graphic novels were so vividly told, Rodriguez decided early on to do his adaptation word for word and shot for shot. He basically used Miller’s comic panels as storyboards. The translation is so literal, he gave Miller a co-directing credit.

To capture the audacity of Miller’s black-and-white world, Rodriguez decided to shoot the entire film in front of a green screen. No sets, just actors with their physical surrounding to be added in digitally.

This technique was attempted in 2004’s colossal flop “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.” That film bombed, because all those special effects didn’t mean squat without a story.

The core of “Sin City’s” story lies in its multidimensionality. Yes, the characters and the awful situations they fall into are as remarkable as any of Tarantino’s messy creations. But even more so than Tarantino’s films, these characters inhabit a world so specific, you almost have to learn the language before turning your eyes to the screen.

The film opens with two hard-boiled cops (Bruce Willis and Michael Madsen) in mid-dialogue. Their speech, drenched in hyper-film noir stylization, seems jarring at first. But once the bullets start flying, blood starts squirting and heads – and there’s a lot of them – start rolling, you will be plastered to your seat, trapped in a world without pity.

The three intersecting storylines of “Sin City” are too convoluted to describe briefly, but they basically focus on grimy tough guys with soft spots for women in danger. And in “Sin City,” every woman is either a stripper or prostitute.

These destructive female roles seem to be the film’s only Achilles’ heel. But then again, Rodriguez is dwelling in so much absurd stylization, the film’s amorality almost seems like a commentary on the way the comic world has always turned a blind eye to female degradation.

“Sin City” is certainly a new stage in the evolution of film, but as to its politics, the jury is still out.