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Darkest Noir

'Sin City' Makes an Art Form Out of Digitalized Violence

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page C01

"Sin City" is a dessert from hell, an intense reduction of certain urban pop culture traditions into a creme brulee of brilliant artificiality. It takes the stylings of the spontaneous and gripping film noir moviemaking of the '40s -- shadowy streets, neon spangles, dramatic compositions, extreme states of being -- and melts them down to scabrous, gooey essence.

And although it's true the movie may remind you of someone channeling Raymond Chandler while gargling Wild Turkey, it's also true that as an icon of high decadence and high craft, it's in a different universe. It's pure outlaw art -- "Kill Bill" would be another outlaw masterpiece, as would "The Wild Bunch," though neither is so formally stylized. And it asks a tough question: What does a work of art owe to morality?

A taste for blood: Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro), right, makes the mistake of messing with a former hit man (Clive Owen) in one of three intertwined stories. (Dimension Films)

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You could call this a pure product of the American death cult. It celebrates revenge of the most violent sort, it features heroes who not merely kill but mutilate, then torture to death their enemies, its view of women is primeval (they be all gun-toting 'ho's), it draws the energy of titillation from breathless examinations of the most profane human behavior (cannibalism, child molestation, rape, ambush-murder), it values toughness above everything, and damn, it's really good.

So do you say: This film is perverse and should be banned for it will fascinate all too many of the impressionable young with its aggressive nihilism? Or do you say: It's so gorgeous and seductive and such a mesmerizing experience, you just have to let it be what it is and not apply the laws of taste and society to it.

Here's the answer and the one thing I know for a fact: I have no idea.

As the visionary director Robert Rodriguez -- sole proprietor of the "Desperado" and "Spy Kids" franchises -- has it, replicating almost exactly the imagery of Frank Miller's graphic novels "Sin City" and two of its sequels, "Sin City" is a kind of film noir Oz, looted and happily liberated from the time-space continium. Think of it as the place where Mickey Spillane's id went to die.

The place, abbreviated cynically from Basin City, is easy to find. It's just up the road from Gotham and to the west of Zenith. It's in the state of Imagination, located no place in time or space but everywhere a lonely man drinks hard at 2 a.m. while drawing sustenance from a glowing cancer stick, where he hears the dogs wail and the wind howl, feels the reassuring weight of the Colt in his shoulder rig and misses a dame who -- I mean, once this stuff gets in your mind, you can't get it out.

The cars appear smuggled in from any Havana street corner, running from the clunky old Model Ts to the sleekest, reddest Ferraris, though a turquoise '57 Chrysler -- you know, the one with tail fins the size of the prow of the USS Alabama -- gets a lot of screen time. Guns? Retro .45s, mostly, like those John Dillinger favored, including a few nice product placements for Springfield Armory of Geneva, Ill. But also Uzis and Berettas and a Steyr AUG or two. The coats are all trenches, the hats fedoras, the cigs unfiltered, the alleys dark and windy, the colors chiaroscuro, and now and then a gash of red or a slash of yellow screams out.

As a film -- well, it's not really a "film"; it's more a high-tech digital construction -- it's the logical next step in the computer-world movies we've been seeing lately -- "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," "The Polar Express" -- but unlike them, it's more than a looker; it's got an actual story or two or three under all the art direction.

But still: What art production! It's one of those jobs where the actors go to a little green room, put on their costumes and makeup, do their jobs and go home in a few days. That raw footage is somehow then inserted into a digitalized (okay, people, what does digitalized mean, anyway?), completely fictitious but breathtakingly detailed universe where art design and lighting counts more than physics. There's no there there, only carefully manipulated (digitalized??) electrons.

There may be 8 million stories in this city, but Rodriguez has chosen to tell only one of them, and a pretty good one, even if he tells it three times.

It's the one about the tough guy -- he may be a cop, a thug or a killer -- who meets a frail and she touches his heart, gives him something to believe in on this crummy ball of crud we call the planet Earth. But then something happens to her, see, so he goes all righteous with wrath and fury, even at the cost of his own life, fighting the sleaze and the corruption and the cesspool and the depravity and the slime and the muck and the goop and the darkness and the creeps and the scum and the IRS and the -- okay, not the IRS.

Rodriguez has taken three of Miller's stories -- the original "Sin City," "The Big Fat Kill" and "The Yellow Bastard" -- and woven them into a tapestry, as they more or less transpire over a single night in Sin City's Old Towne section, and down those mean streets three men who are not tarnished and afraid must go. Okay, so they're all pretty mean themselves. The hero of the first is the man-mountain Marv, played by Mickey Rourke and a seven-pound nose apparently modeled after the profile of Pontiac, the Indian on the car. Marv, a three-time loser, runs into a babe named Goldie (Jaime King) and has a night in paradise with her, but wakes up the next morning to find Goldie dead and himself framed for it with the cops just outside the door. He's got to figure out who did it, and pay him back in pain.

Marv isn't a detective; he's a hooligan. His idea of investigating is mostly handled with guns and fists, and the trail leads to the top of Sin City's power structure. Rutger Hauer plays the evil Cardinal Roark whose mentee, Kevin (Elijah Wood), is a cannibalistic elf with the eyes of a fawn who eats women's bodies and hangs their heads up in his farm house. Marv's vengeance, needless to say, is abrupt, terminal and flamboyant.

The weakest of the three tales comes next, an account of how ex-hit man Dwight (Brit Clive Owen) saves the girls of Old Towne -- the dame in charge is Rosario Dawson, made up to look like seven feet of leather-bound hell on high heels (loved the Uzi), and don't even get me started on Devon Aoki or we'll be here all night -- after a bully they have eliminated turns out to be a cop. Think of Dwight as the guy with two red shoes and two .45s. He takes down Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) and his clowns, but gets a swim in a tar pit for his troubles and uncovers a plot by Irish mercenaries to take over the demimonde for the powers that are. A lot of it turns on possession of Jackie Boy's head (maybe someone is doing a joke along the lines of "Bring me the head of Benicio Del Toro!"). The story is too complicated and depends entirely too much on exposition of the political contexts.

But the third piece -- its first act runs early in the film and it plays to conclusion at the end -- is the best. Here weary warrior and Sin City's only honest cop, John Hartigan (Bruce Willis with somebody else's scars and somebody else's crew cut), tries to save little Nancy Callahan from Junior (Nick Stahl), a perverted child-molesting sociopath who enjoys a get-out-of-jail-free lifestyle courtesy of his powerful father, a senator (played by an unbilled Powers Boothe in high dementia). For his heroism, Hartigan is rewarded with eight years in the slammer; when he gets out, young Nancy has grown into a willowy dancer (Jessica Alba) and she is still being hunted by the sociopath, who now specializes in molesting 19-year-old strippers.

Hartigan's on the case. Like Marv before him -- maybe too much like Marv before him -- he tracks his antagonist down to the same locale (the farm again; there's also a relationship between Cardinal Roark and the senator, and in some sense Kevin and Junior are siblings) and takes his 9 pounds 13 ounces of flesh. Unfortunately, before Hartigan can torture his way to justice, he must be tortured himself on the way to injustice: A long, sadistic sequence at the end of a rope may disturb even the hardiest of soulless movie consumers of this kind of genius-level junk.

There are no great, bravura sequences in "Sin City" as there were in "Kill Bill" and "The Wild Bunch," no sustained explosions of kinetic lyricism. The imagery is sensational, however: Marv slithering out of his car as it sinks into the river that surrounds them, Hartigan pulling a shiv from nowhere and giving someone a very bad day right in the fat gut, Dwight sinking in black tar, going down, down, down. Let's put it this way: Two hours and six minutes has never seemed so much like two and six-tenths seconds. It's pure pulp metafiction.

Sin City (126 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extremely cruel and graphic (if stylized) violence.

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