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So Good, It's 'Sin'-ful

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page WE43

THE WASHINGTON streets are snarling with the usual workaday souls: Metro-card-holding, iPod-armed yuppies. Three-piece-suited lawyers hitting their car horns 'cause they can't get to K Street fast enough. Spandexed bike messengers pumping pedals. Panhandlers claiming they need just 20 more cents for that Metro ride home. Sure, buddy. Pull the other leg. Yeah, another day in the big city. Wa-Sin-City, D.C.

Me? Just some two-bit hack, firing up another filterless Gitane, facing that computer keyboard. Thinking with a smile about the woman I kissed goodbye this morning.

Jessica Alba and Bruce Willis star as Nancy and Hartigan in the visually arresting film "Frank Miller's Sin City." (Dimension Films)

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"Don't forget to take out the garbage, hon," she said.

Dames sure know how to talk that sweet talk.

The blank screen's laughing at me now: "Go ahead, baby. Type that hard-boiled review of 'Sin City.' Tell the people how darn cool it is."

Shuddup, you heartless pane, I tell it. Gotta stop talking to things. First sign of madness, they say. Whoever "they" are. Come on, pal. You've done this before. If you can't make it sing, spit it out anyway.

Here goes: "Frank Miller's Sin City" is the hippest, darkest flick I've seen all year. It's not even April, mind you. So that was easy to say. But you get the picture. A movie composed of three edge-of-your-seat sagas, it's co-directed by Miller (the cool cat who wrote the 1991 graphic novel series that rocked a generation) and Robert Rodriguez, who made "El Mariachi" and "From Dusk Till Dawn." And Quentin Tarantino, the official pimp daddy of indie-chic, even gets to guest-direct.

Tarantino, incidentally, does a scene in which Dwight, a private investigator, played by Clive Owen, is stopped by cops at a very inconvenient moment. He happens to have his trunk loaded with severed body parts, and his passenger is sitting dead in the front seat with an all-but-severed head. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

"Sin City" takes us to Basin City, where corruption is the order of the day and daylight never seems to last too long. The cops are dirty, the hookers are armed and empowered like gangstas, and the tough guys are built like brick houses but they still get beat up anyway. It's those sleazy bars they go to. And those dames they get hooked on. In a tough world like this, it's easy to fall in love. Gives them something to believe in.

Take Marv (Mickey Rourke), a sinewy fireplug of a guy. Laughs when cops or punks rip his face. Spits out blood nonchalantly when the cops give him the once-over. But melts like an ice pop in July when a goddess beauty (Jaime King) called Goldie drapes herself around him and takes him home. Marv wakes up to find her dead and spends the rest of his life looking for the killers who iced the love of his life.

Then there's Dwight. With emotional ties to his prostitute pals, he does everything he can to save them after the death of a group of cops threatens to provoke a brutal war between the call gals and the boys in blue. That's where the hacked body parts come in. But Dwight does it for love.

An unexpected romance proves to be the spiritual guiding light for John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), who's just about the only good cop in Sin City. After an 11-year-old girl is apprehended, he risks everything to save her from a dirty cop (Michael Madsen) and a bizarre sadist (Nick Stahl) with connections in high places.

These dramas of tough, almost bionic guys and elusive, slinky women are extreme versions of the underworld sensibility that has governed a billion crime novels and films noirs of the 1940s and '50s. Miller became a cult hero for such edgy, comic book creations as Elektra (the ninja assassin) and Ronin (a hard-core samurai figure). But the "Sin City" series was his pulp fiction masterpiece. The idea of making a movie of "Sin City" would seem to be an instant disaster -- how could a film do justice to the gritty idiosyncrasies of his work?

But with their translations of Miller's "The Hard Goodbye," "The Big Fat Kill" and "That Yellow Bastard," Miller and Rodriguez have achieved the near-impossible: reproducing the pictorial reality of those comic book stories onto the screen. Visually, this has been done with digital enhancement, darkly perfected sets and masterful makeup. The performers look part-cartoon and part-human and thoroughly convincing.

But all the visual splendor in the world means nothing without effective performances. The list of memorables is long: Rourke has found his greatest role since "The Pope of Greenwich Village." Willis is his usual authoritatively tough-and-tender self. Owen and Benicio Del Toro (as a menacingly jealous boyfriend named Jackie Boy) are outstanding. And Elijah Wood is so luminously creepy as the psychopathic Kevin, you'd swear he just sprang fully formed from an M. Night Shyamalan nightmare. And those are just the guys. The women are equally formidable, including Jessica Alba as Hartigan's icon dream girl; Rosario Dawson as an Uzi-packing hooker named Gail; Brittany Murphy as a savvy, tenderhearted waitress who links all three stories; and Devon Aoki as Miho, a deadly streetwalker who uses the same swords we enjoyed in Tarantino's "Kill Bill" movies.

Yes, "Sin City" is an orgy of cynical violence, but it's a winkingly surface grimness, just like its B-movie/pulp novel ancestors. You simply appreciate this genre for what it is, or you don't. Rodriguez and company have so faithfully captured Miller's essence, there's something beautiful about the whole thing. It's an act of inspired reverence. Whether or not the movie does well in its theatrical first run, it's a guaranteed must-see for its generation. "Sin City" has a long, long shelf life ahead.

FRANK MILLER'S SIN CITY (R, 124 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, violence, nudity and sexual scenes. Area theaters.

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