The story of filming Frank Miller’s graphic novel series Sin City began when 90s indie phenom Robert Rodriguez (he of the semi-automatic guitar), along with three CAA agents, actually booked passage onto the River Styx and sailed into darkest Hades in order to renegotiate the 9 1/2 Weeks contract for which Mickey Rourke sold his soul. Upon returning to the surface with Demon Mickey, the filmmakers immediately shoved him in front of a black and white camera, and the result was a new film genre: Post-noir.
Post-noir is globalized, glam-rock noir: we’ve traded in suggestive, the-Orson Welles-character-is-actually-selling-watered-down-medicine-to-sick-children creepiness for attention-starved, over-the-moon lunacy. Instead of sophisticated, cigar-chewing Kirk Douglas, we have the soured virgin Elijah Wood; icy school-marm Barbara Stanwyck has been traded in for a handful of Vivid Video box cover girls. Instead of claustrophobic realism, we have a post-Evil Dead nightmare world where even the most unspeakable crimes and Faustian bargains can’t create a ripple on the Easter Island statue face of Powers Boothe.
Film noir, past or present, has one constant: Blame the Dame. Two out of the three main storylines in Sin City involve hapless palookas who make the mistake of getting seduced by beauty and then go to ridiculous extremes to try to protect the beauty in a city of beasts. Apparently the mugs who populate this jerkwater burg haven’t seen enough noir of their own to know that every blonde has a heart full of quicksand. And everyone down to the janitor’s cousin has six agendas. I was reminded of Fritz Lang’s M, where the montages of scheming criminals are intercut with the equally disturbing paper pushing of the local police. In this movie, when the cops come calling, they don’t just arrive – they swarm up the stairs like mosquitoes.
The bookend and second story are by far the most interesting, and convey the kind of desperate hopelessness that wouldn’t be palatable to us without twenty years of zombie movies and A&E biographies of serial killers behind us. The middle story involves a street gang run by whores, mistaken identity, the Irish Republican Army apparently, and…you get the idea. One thing that makes it work is the quite interesting character of Jackie Boy, played with Fenster-like zeal by Benicio Del Toro. Del Toro seems to revel in creating unfilmable characters from another plane of existence. Here he makes Yellow Bastard seem like David Hyde Pierce. (Someone please tell me there’s a Batman villain in his future.)
Visually, the film is impressive – Rodriguez shows energy here not seen since Desperado. He’s also a director who knows his limitations – (allowing Johnny Depp to run rampant in the otherwise Terri Schiavo-esque Once Upon a Time in Mexico was a stroke of genius). Rodriguez has a confident camera and apparently a hunger for collaboration, all of which elevate the proceedings to an enjoyable level.
Having bypassed his Spy Kids kiddie series, I was not aware of how far Rodriguez had gone in tinkering with the line between the digital and the real. Although most of his digital artistry in this film is reserved for car chases and the like, I’m reminded that we seem to be inching closer and closer toward the moment when photo-realistic human faces will be creatable. After that, God help us.
Dog mauling, lonely lesbians, noble suicide, employable serial killers – nothing is left out of the grinder. The one moment of humanity in the film comes from the ghost-like twin sister of a once-beloved whore. Rodriguez has also tapped into society’s unease over genetic meddling by crossbreeding a human actress with a giant hoot owl in order to create a new creature - the Brittany Murphy - that is only capable of nodding and blinking massive semaphore eyes.
Any kind of squirm-inducing bodily harm is explored, every manner of emotional treachery is exploited, and it all moves along at a snappy pace, like a muscular tequila worm speeding straight to the center of the toxic heart chakra of Mickey Rourke.
(Oh, and it’s rated R.)