Review: Sin City

The nights are cloudy, the alleys are dark, the men are dangerous, bars are smoky and femmes are fatale. “Sin City” is a thing of dark, bloody beauty.

And so goes the world of Frank Miller’s magnum opus comic book series, which is also arguably what caused him to go off the deep end. Director Robert Rodriguez adapts the first three volumes of the “Sin City” with almost stunning fidelity, both in the grotesquely bloody subject matter and in the black-and-white noir atmosphere.

“Sin City” is actually made up of three stories: In the depths of Basin (Sin) City, scarred hulk Marv (Mickey Rourke) sleeps with a beautiful prostitute (because Frank Miller), Goldie (Jaime King), only to find her dead beside him the next morning. Enraged, he goes on a killing spree to find her murderer, and learns that sinister cannibal Kevin (Elijah Wood) is responsible. But there’s a powerful figure behind Kevin, who calls the shots.

Elsewhere in Sin City, Dwight (Clive Owen) does his best to defend Gail (Rosario Dawson) and the other Old Town prostitutes (because Frank Miller). But when Dwight kills a crooked cop, he has to somehow cover up the crime. And Hartigan (Bruce Willis), a cop with a failing heart, goes out of his job with a bang: He rescues little Nancy Callahan from a child molester who happens to be a senator’s son. Hartigan is jailed, and when he gets out, he finds that Nancy (Jessica Alba) has grown into a lasso-twirling stripper (because Frank Miller). But the senator’s son — nicknamed Yellow Bastard — is still after her.

“Sin City” is one of those few comic book adaptations that doesn’t seem… well, cartoonish. Sure, it’s the very image of noir, but the grim tone and grey characters are very real. It’s not a movie for the fainthearted, but whoever enjoys the films of Quentin Tarantino (who directed one scene here) will surely be blown away.

Like “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” this film is done almost entirely digitally, which gives it a uniquely slick, shadowy style. But unlike “Sky Captain,” it has substance as well as style. All the sets and props are done with computers, and nearly everything is in black and white. Here and there we get a splash of colour — red lipstick and matching dress, Yellow Bastard’s face, green eyes — to let us know when something is significant.

As for the story, the contents of three “Sin City” comic books are interwoven here, and Rodriguez is constantly faithful: A lot of these shots could have been lifted straight from the comic’s pages. He also preserves the stark, black-and-white style that the graphic novels are known for, splattered with blood and sharply directed. It’s not realistic, despite its grittiness, but it is viscerally fascinating.

And despite all that blood and the Elijah Wood cannibal, the movie has a dark sense of chivalry… though it’s somewhat marred by Frank Miller’s characteristic tendency to depict all women as prostitutes. Each story is about an outcast man defending a woman’s honor, safety, or memory, even if he sacrifices himself in the process. “Sin City” wears its heart on its sleeve, even if that sleeve is bloodstained and torn.

Most of the actors do wonderful jobs — Owen’s dark photographer, Rourke’s scarred strongman, Stahl’s revolting Yellow Bastard, and Alba’s surprisingly sweet stripper. Only a few, like Brittany Murphy, have lackluster performances. But perhaps the most memorable performances come from Bruce Willis and Elijah Wood. Willis plays his aging cop role with unusual grace, even when tearing the genitals off Yellow Bastard. And Wood plays Kevin with both creepy evil and spiritual ecstacy. All without saying a word.

“Sin City” is a remarkable, bleak, intense movie — a halfway point between Tarantino and Raymond Chandler, crafted in the style of a graphic novel. An outstanding piece of work.