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Sin City

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  • Noel Vera
    Thin City By Noel Vera Robert Rodriguez doing Frank Miller sounds like a match made in heaven, at least on paper: Rodriguez comic-book style can provide a
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 16, 2005
      Thin "City"

      By Noel Vera

      Robert Rodriguez doing Frank Miller sounds like a match made in
      heaven, at least on paper: Rodriguez comic-book style can provide a
      speed and motion and visual depth that could enhance Miller's
      images, while Miller can provide the wisecracking dialogue and plot
      twists that could firm up Rodriguez's sometimes shaky storytelling
      (Rodriguez, as can be seen in "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," often
      doesn't know how to drive a plot forward; he needs a fairly good
      writer to add structure and snap. Which is why I think "From Dusk
      Till Dawn," his collaboration with longtime friend Quentin Tarantino
      (a clever writer with not much of an eye), is the best work either
      of them have ever done (there's "Jackie Brown"--but that's Tarantino
      channeling Elmore Leonard)).

      Miller's "Sin City" graphic novels (I remember when they used to be
      called "comic books") are black-and-white pastiches, the
      distillation of dozens of classic "noir" films, where hardboiled
      detectives or borderline psychotics hold complicated codes of honor,
      authority figures are absolutely powerful and absolutely corrupt,
      and women are either whores or innocents endowed with a pair of
      prominently displayed, pneumatically enlarged breasts. Perhaps the
      most notable feature of the novels is Miller's determined manner of
      turning up the volume on the sex and violence, particularly the
      violence (the sex mostly happens offscreen and is often remarkably
      chaste, given the milieu (one character goes on a killing spree
      after just a single night with a hooker (some people will do
      anything to get laid); another goes to jail for years successfully
      defending the purity of a young girl)). Miller packs as many
      variations on killing as he can into these pages, using all kinds of
      weapons from a .45 caliber cannon to razor wire to a samurai sword;
      he tries to put a spin on the violence through the use of black
      comedy--a mordant comment or ironic remark as exclamation point on
      someone's often blood-spattered passing. The violence and humor
      plays to interesting effect against the austerely rendered
      monochromatic background--it's like looking at a blood-drenched
      world through armor-plated sunglasses.

      Rodriguez's adaptation of Miller's work couldn't be more faithful--
      may, in fact, be the most faithful adaptation of a piece of text in
      film history. He gives no scriptwriter credits, lifting all his
      dialogue from the novels; uses Miller's drawings as his storyboards;
      consults with Miller so frequently and thoroughly in making the film
      that he gives Miller a co-directing credit (giving up his Director's
      Guild membership--and several juicy projects, including the
      proposed "A Princess of Mars" movie--in the process). Rodriguez's
      regard for Miller is so intense and absolute you'd think it almost
      pointless to go back and read the graphic novels, they've been so
      thoroughly realized onscreen (four stories, at least: "The Hard
      Goodbye," "The Big Fat Kill," and "That Yellow Bastard," plus two
      brief sequences bookending the film taken from the short story "The
      Customer is Always Right"). All that's left after watching the film,
      really, is deciding if it (and by extension the graphic novel) is
      any good.

      Not really.

      Held in your hands, confined mainly to two dimensions, Miller's
      graphic novels are an amusing curiosity, quickly read, quickly
      disposed of. In terms of hyperbolic violence and explicit sex it
      doesn't quite match his exuberantly executed earlier work entitled
      (what else?) "Hard-Boiled" (eye-popping artwork by--come to think of
      it Miller barely matters here--Geoff Darrow); in terms of witty
      dialogue and clever reworking of classic elements it doesn't quite
      equal "The Dark Knight Returns," his penultimate interpretation of
      DC Comics' The Batman. "Sin City" is a minor work, albeit a fairly
      well-drawn one, from a skillful and occasionally brilliant (if not
      great) writer-artist, and it's hard to understand why Rodriguez
      would devote so much time, money, energy and talent into bringing to
      the big screen what was sufficiently engaging on paper.

      And it's not as if Rodriguez does such a bang-up job, either. As
      filmmaker he should have realized the difficulties of adapting from
      another medium, however closely related--that what seems like a
      nifty little exploitation piece sprinkled with a bit of wit and an
      old-fashioned sense of morality (but don't all "noirs" have
      precisely that?) would feel ponderous and pretentious, blown up on
      the big screen. That the characters played by stars like Mickey
      Rourke, Bruce Willis, Nick Stahl, Benicio del Toro, Jessica Alba,
      Rosario Dawson, Elijah Wood, Rutger Hauer, Devon Aoki and (in a tiny
      role) Josh Hartnett, would seem too thin and unconvincing to deserve
      such a largely talented cast (Alba's talents are mostly pneumatic).
      Worse, with not one but three major storylines (plus a short story)
      to tell, that he'd rush through all three without building enough
      momentum for any of them to leave much of a lasting impact. It's not
      just the pacing; his very sense of editing rhythm seems off, and he
      rushes through the numerous fight scenes like he's in a hurry to
      cram every last frame of Miller's novels into his overcrowded
      canvas. The effect is more dulling than shocking, more tedious and
      confusing than provocative, much less evocative; Miller's drawings
      have a better sense of timing, make better use of the dramatic
      pause, all the while frozen on paper.

      Ultimately, what do Rodriguez and Miller hope to achieve? Do they
      think their dialogue has more wit and sexual oomph than Chandler,
      Faulkner and Brackett's in Howard Hawk's "The Big Sleep?" Do they
      think they have conjured up a more vivid figure of evil than John
      Huston's Noah Cross in Roman Polanski's "Chinatown?" Do they think
      they have created a more unsettling series of visual pyrotechnics, a
      world with a stronger sense of corruption and decay than Orson
      Welles' in "Lady From Shanghai" and "Touch of Evil" respectively?
      Violence, stylized with cartoon colors (the characters bleed not
      read but featureless white, as if they had been pumped up with
      colored ink) and a cartoon sensibility, has no weight or impact if
      it can't serve a correspondingly intense drama, played out by
      skillfully sketched characters--and there's no characterization to
      speak of to even begin to create that kind of drama. "Sin City," for
      all its hyped-up brutality has as much depth, ultimately, as a sheet
      of paper.

      (First published in Businessworld, June 3, 2005)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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