You get the feeling it's always nighttime in Basin City, at least in its seamy underbelly where the bad cops, psychos and hookers circulate. It may be grim to live in Sin City, but a two-hour visit, via Robert Rodriguez's big-screen translation of Frank Miller's graphic novels, proves exhilarating.
Three of Miller's novels are intertwined in a loose nonlinear fashion. In one thread, a literally broken-hearted cop named Hartigan (Bruce Willis) seeks to save a stripper (Jessica Alba). Meanwhile, full-time loser Marv (Mickey Rourke) fights to avenge a hooker's death. And Dwight (Clive Owen) and a madam (Rosario Dawson) run afoul of a twisted cop (Benicio Del Toro).
The time is the late 20th century, but the vibe is all retro pulp. The men wear leather dusters and drive gigantic chrome-heavy cars (Marv dismisses modern cars as "looking like electric shavers"). The protagonists favor morose voice-overs delivered in deadpan Chandlerese ("I gave him the hard goodbye"). Hartigan, Marv and Dwight may be losers, defenders of whores and brutal killers, but they live by clear-cut old-fashioned codes of loyalty and justice.
What is most striking is how Rodriguez has literally adapted Miller's work (with directorial assistance from the author, as well as a hand from his pal Quentin Tarantino). He slavishly duplicates the black-and-white comix panels, replete with their bizarre angles and stark graphic contrast. Here, doorways are all sharp rectangles of pure white through which black silhouettes pass.
The actors worked against green screens that were later filled in with digital backgrounds. It's an artificiality that works and heightens the pleasure of vicariously stepping into a ramped-up comic-book world where edgy and off-kilter visuals contribute as much to the brutish tone as do the sneering dialogue and grim narrative. Rodriguez tosses in occasional bits of color, chiefly red, for fetish or shock value -- a pair of red lips here, a mouthful of yellow urine there.
Urine, blood, viscera -- Rodriguez doesn't scrimp on the violence, which toggles between over-the-top and hardcore, though some injuries are meticulously depicted in a splotchy comic-book style. Likewise, Sin City, with its roster of barely clad B-girls, is unrepentantly sexy -- or sexist, depending on your tastes.
Sin City isn't marred by trendy snarkiness -- it's pure homage with no winking -- nor by bowdlerizing the source material to fit Hollywood's comix-adaptation standards (see Constantine, Hellboy). For fans of the genre, the bar for future big-screen comix outings has been raised immeasurably.
Its storylines aren't as intricate or as fresh, but for stylized looks and atmosphere Sin City easily out-pulps Pulp Fiction. This is a neo-noir that goes to 11, a shadowy nightscape whose brooding intensity rarely lets up. When I left the theater, I was stunned to find a sunlit world still outside.