By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated March 17, 2020 at 03:09 AM EDT
Clive Owen, Rosario Dawson, ...
Credit: Sin City: Dimension Films
  • Movie

Faithfulness, a virtue in personal relationships, is overrated when it comes to movie adaptations of comic books. (Let the foaming from fanboys begin.) The devotee who is betrothed to the pages of a particular, ardently loved graphic novel — sequential print-art event, multipage transportable visual diversion, whatever — is the devotee advised to reread that book, through sickness and health, for guaranteed fidelity of experience. To look for the same in a movie is to arrive at the obsessive literal-mindedness and diminished emotional returns of Sin City or, as the promotional materials emphasize, Frank Miller’s Sin City — as if, in certain controversial scholarly circles, Francis Bacon has been credited with the authorship.

This uncontestedly jazzy-looking screen translation of various stories from the pages of the Sin City comic books begun by Miller in 1991 is first and foremost the cinematic work of impish pop-culture vulture Robert Rodriguez, who has swung in his colorful career from El Mariachi to Spy Kids. But with insistence that the work is produced and directed by Rodriguez and Frank Miller, from text by Frank Miller, with an appearance by Frank Miller as a low-down priest, I’ve got to wonder how much truer to the pulp-fiction spirit of the books (and thus how much more persuasive an introduction for the uninitiated) the movie might have been had its production team not been stuck in such fawning thrall to the source material. Miller is famed, in inky circles, for his two issues of Marvel’s Spectacular Spider-Man, and for his work on the comics Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns. Call me an insensitive non-fangirl, but if the sacred works of Jane Austen can stand up to freewheeling reinterpretation, then so, too, can heavy-breathing pages about trussed-up little girls and a vile-smelling cartoon pervert known as Yellow Bastard.

Miller’s neighborhood of vice, lust, perversity, and loneliness (the burg’s full name is Basin City, as in the pits of humanity) is one of brutish, rock-jawed men, dangerous and impossibly curvaceous women, crooked cops, and arch-villain types familiar and even comforting to any hormonally trip-wired teenager who has ever held a racy comic book with one hand. Rodriguez/Miller’s screen version, fleshed out by eager-to-play-along stars including Bruce Willis (as a crusty cop), Jessica Alba (as an untainted exotic dancer), Clive Owen (as a tough ex-photojournalist), Rosario Dawson (as your average hottie prostitute), and Elijah Wood (as the kind of flesh-eating serial killer who lurks inside every adolescent boy) warps those characters into alienating — or worse, laughable — avatars of violence and sexual humiliation. Miller’s carefully styled, hard-boiled dialogue and narrative connections (”The night is hot as hell. Everything sticks. It’s a lousy room in a lousy part of a lousy town”) lose punch — or worse, sound like Guy Noir parodies from Garrison Keillor — when spoken out loud with broad sneers rather than read, nestled on the page amid the crackle and pop of the illustrations.

Consider the story of the vulnerable bruiser Marv, Miller’s coolest antihero, played like he was born for the gig by Mickey Rourke in the movie’s best star turn. Marv’s mangled profile is a cross between Dudley Do-Right and Ron Perlman on Beauty and the Beast, and he’s got the ugly-puss resignation to go with it. And when he gets into a brawl, which is constantly, he covers his scrapes with adhesive bandages that glow white, like stars, on the blackness of the page or screen. Rodriguez gets Marv’s look down just right — the visual elegance of Sin City may be its own reward for certain tech-minded connoisseurs — and in Rourke’s melancholy interpretation, a soul leaks out that the movie doesn’t know what to do with. And so a grand love-and-death story that might have carried the whole picture — about the homely loner’s all-city search for the killer of a beautiful woman who showed Marv love in one night of sticky bliss — gets shuffled between other, less ”human” stories that apparently must be told.

Such undifferentiated enthusiasm culminates in a long, stupidly extreme story of torture and revenge involving Benicio Del Toro as a stinkin’ cop who gets into a spot of trouble: He’s tortured, and double-killed, and triple-hacked until his head — severed from his body — becomes a negotiation point and/or soccer ball all its own, with competing Sinners out to collect it. The moderate amusement of seeing Del Toro in segments (and FYI, he’s not the only star who goes to pieces in Rodriguez and Miller’s town) soon wears off, though, replaced by a kind of restless overstimulation. Glued tightly from page to screen, Sin City is so seduced by the visual possibilities of sin that style becomes its own vice.More Action/Adventure Movies

Sin City

  • Movie
  • R
  • 126 minutes
  • Frank Miller
  • Robert Rodriguez