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Should I Watch..? 'Sin City' (2005)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the Big Deal?

Sin City is a crime anthology film released in 2005 and was directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez. Based on Miller's series of graphic novels, the film presents three stories based in the fictional Basin City where crime is rampant and the rain seemingly never ends. The film features an ensemble cast that includes Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Brittany Murphy, Clive Owen, Rosario Dawson, Elijah Wood, Jessica Alba, Benicio del Toro, Michael Clarke Duncan and Josh Hartnett. The film deliberately mirrors the same style used in the graphic novels, meaning that most of the film is shot in black and white with occasional flashes of colour to highlight certain objects. Released to a positive critical reception, the film went on to earn $160 million worldwide and earned praise for its visual style, acting and neo-noir atmosphere, although some critics bemoaned the film's bleak tone. The film was followed by a sequel in 2014, A Dame To Kill For, but this was a critical and commercial failure.

Unmissable

What's It About?

The film is loosely based on the first, third and fourth books in the Sin City series. In Basin City, life is tough for its terrified citizens who try to live their lives as normally as possible amid the crime, corruption and sleaze. However, for guys like Marv, the city is almost a playground until one night, the woman he wakes up next to is brutally murdered and he is framed for the killing. Determined to seek vengeance for his beloved Goldie, Marv begins a bloody quest for justice and doesn't particularly care who gets in his way - be they cop or crook.

Private detective Dwight McCarthy comes to the aid of his girlfriend Shellie who is being harassed by her ex, Jackie Boy. However, his attempts to warn Jacky off turn violent and soon, he is thrown into a battle between the city's army of prostitutes led by Dwight's on-off lover Gail and the city's police force, a war that threatens to tear up their shaky accord. Meanwhile, honest cop John Hartigan has cornered serial child-rapist Roark Junior in an attempt to protect the life of young Nancy Callahan although Roark's senator father will almost certainly pull some strings to ensure that Hartigan will pay for his diligence...

Trailer

What's to Like?

I confess that I do enjoy reading a graphic novel, certainly much more than regular comic books which require a great deal of time and loyalty invested. Graphic novels can go deeper and darker into their characters and narrative and few writers can get as dark as Miller, the man responsible for the modern and grittier interpretation of Batman thanks to his masterpiece, The Dark Knight Returns. Sitting alongside Rodriguez in the director's chair allows Miller to keep a very close eye on this first adaptation and it really shows - Sin City looks and feels very much like a graphic novel that has come to life, much more so than any other graphic novel adaptation I can think of. The black-and-white aesthetic matches that of the printed source material while the splashes of colour used sparingly in the film feel potent and extremely effective.

From top to bottom, the film is filled with wonderful performances from its vast cast of stars. But personally, Rourke stands out sublimely as the hulking Marv despite the masses of makeup and prosthetics he's hidden under. Despite his violent outbursts and colourful language, Marv is a brilliantly written character with genuine emotion and wit and he is eminently watchable. Other highlights include a career-best performance from Stahl, Wood's chilling portrayal as the mute, cannibalistic killer Kevin and Owen discarding his normal good-guy persona to play a brutal private eye with revenge on his mind. I will say that the female characters might not be as memorable as the male characters but that is more down to how they're written and not how well they are played by the cast.

Despite the film's technical innovations, it feels remarkably like an old fashioned film noir thanks to the vintage cars and constant monologuing by the central characters. I loved the Pulp Fiction-style blending of stories that makes the setting feel like a real place much bigger than what we see on screen and the narratives are classically noir full of murderous femme fatales and double-crossed heroes blasting their way out of trouble through a haze of cigarette and gun smoke. At least the stories don't mess with the overall cohesion or chronology of the film so viewers are never left behind or confused. In spite of the number of characters and plot threads, it's surprisingly easy to follow - at least, assuming you have the stomach for some truly sickening violence at times. It may be an adaptation of a graphic novel but this certainly isn't for kids.

The film mirrors the monochromatic style of the graphic novels, save for the occasional splash of colour. It looks incredible, like the comic has come to life.

The film mirrors the monochromatic style of the graphic novels, save for the occasional splash of colour. It looks incredible, like the comic has come to life.

Fun Facts

  • The film has the unusual distinction of having three credited directors: Rodriguez, Miller (who essentially storyboarded the film via the source material) and Tarantino, who directed the driving sequence when Dwight is talking to the deceased Jackie Boy. The Director's Guild of America refuse to acknowledge more than one director for any film so Rodriguez resigned from the guild so that all three could receive a directing credit. This also resulted in Rodriguez relinquishing the directorial duties for John Carter.
  • Rodriguez paid Tarantino just one dollar for directing his one scene in the film. This might sound cruel but QT was simply repaying Rodriguez a favour as he had scored Kill Bill: Vol. 2 for the same fee and Tarantino wanted experience shooting on digital instead of his preferred film.
  • The opening sequence of the film is based on the short story The Customer Is Always Right which featured in the sixth book of the series. However, it was made before Frank Miller agreed to make the film - Rodriguez was so certain the technology could be used to adapt the material that he made the sequence merely to prove this point to Miller.
  • The film was among the first to be shot almost entirely on a digital backlot although four sets were actually constructed for the film - Kadie's Bar, Shellie's apartment, Hartigan's prison cell and the hospital that appears in the film's epilogue. All other backgrounds seen in the film were added later in post production.
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What's Not to Like?

One of the problems I have with anthology films like this is that there inevitably comes a point when the film slows down as the narratives switch. As much as I love Pulp Fiction, I personally found the middle story involving Bruce Willis' boxer falling foul of a sadomasochistic shop owner quite out of place and it seemed to slow the film down - plus I was having too much fun watching John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson tearing it up as the unforgettable Vincent Vega and Jules Winfield. In Sin City, I felt the film also dragged in the middle story - the two-part story 'That Yellow Bastard' is engrossing and Marv is way too watchable in 'The Hard Goodbye' to forget but 'The Big Fat Kill' just doesn't quite engage in the same way. Maybe I was a bit burnt out at this point.

Besides extreme violence and seriously adult material, my only other complaint about this film was its distinctly downbeat tone. There is almost no relief from the sheer brutality of the film's narratives - characters seem devoid of all hope and stories rarely end happily. It's like Basin City (the film's setting) is like a more depressed version of Gotham City with its near-constant rain and hardly any scenes that I can recall happening in day light. I shouldn't be surprised given Miller's involvement but watching this, I did feel the need to wonder if everything was alright with him or whether he had any trouble at home. Truthfully, this film is bleaker than the inescapable global apocalypse of 2012.

As Marv, Rourke (right) delivers one of the more memorable performances of his career despite the makeup. He really was on a hot streak at this time.

As Marv, Rourke (right) delivers one of the more memorable performances of his career despite the makeup. He really was on a hot streak at this time.

Should I Watch It?

For anyone who thinks that a comic book adaptation is going to be light, energetic and colourful, Sin City is the perfect antidote. It's dark, brooding, uncompromising and definitely not one for fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it is also a superb piece of filmmaking brilliance, a tribute to pulp noir cinema and one of the most rewarding films you can enjoy. It won't be for everyone's tastes but what this film does, it does wonderfully well.

Great For: mature viewers, fans of any graphic novel but especially Miller's previous work, anyone claiming that cinema is causing society's moral decline

Not So Great For: the squeamish, the easily offended, weak stomachs

What Else Should I Watch?

It's such a shame that the much anticipated sequel A Dame To Kill For fell on its sword, despite its equally stellar cast and identical visual style. The sequel featured original stories written by Miller and some noticeable recastings such as Josh Brolin replacing Clive Owen as Dwight. But critics were unimpressed, claiming that the sequel lacked the brutality and shock of the first film although Eva Green's performance was singled out for praise by some. The failure of the second film meant that plans for a third Sin City film were ultimately scrapped which is a damn tragedy given the strength and sheer power of this first film.

Rodriguez is a filmmaker with a particular style, often featuring tributes and homages to other genres and influences in a way not entirely unlike his good friend Quentin Tarantino. Since blasting into the mainstream with the low-budget spaghetti western Desperado, Rodriguez has succeeded in both family-friendly fare such as the Spy Kids franchise and more adult outings like his Mexican-inspired action parody Machete and his half of the double feature Grindhouse, Planet Terror, alongside Quentin's contribution Death Proof. If nothing else, the man is almost solely responsible for the career of one Danny Trejo...

Main Cast

ActorRole

Jessica Alba

Nancy Callahan

Devon Aoki

Miho

Alexis Bledel

Becky

Powers Boothe

Senator Ethan Roark

Rosario Dawson

Gail

Benicio del Toro

"Jackie Boy"

Michael Clarke Duncan

Manute

Carla Gugino

Lucille

Josh Hartnett

The Salesman

Rutger Hauer

Cardinal Patrick Henry Roark

Jamie King

Goldie / Wendy

Michael Madsen

Detective Bob

Brittany Murphy

Shellie

Clive Owen

Dwight McCarthy

Mickey Rourke

Marv

Nick Stahl

Ethan Roark Jr

Bruce Willis

Detective John Hartigan

Elijah Wood

Kevin

Technical Info

*based on the graphic novel series created by Frank Miller

DirectorsRobert Rodriguez, Frank Miller & Quentin Tarantino (credited as 'special guest director')

Screenplay

Robert Rodriguez*

Running Time

124 minutes

Release Date (UK)

3rd June, 2005

Rating

18

Genre

Crime, Drama, Thriller

© 2021 Benjamin Cox

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