If you're unfamiliar with the Frank Miller graphic novels that are the source material for Sin City, here's how to get an idea of what to expect: Imagine a typical noir crime movie - packed with long shadows, wisecracking brutes, beautiful dames and an atmosphere of fear, mistrust, bleakness and paranoia. Then take the stylized imagery and gritty violence of that kind of film and multiply by around 100.
Rosario Dawson as Gail and Clive Owen as Dwight
Get the picture? Sin City is film noir on steroids. Using the same combination of greenscreen and computer effects he employed in the Spy Kids series, moviemaker Robert Rodriguez takes the outrageously stylized panels from the graphic novel and animates them in all of their lurid glory.
Ready to wallow in misery? Hope so, because the film spends two hours in cartoon hell, with rapes, murders, mutilation, cannibalism and blood all over the place. It's highly stylized, of course, but still, there are numerous "Holy shit, I can't believe they showed that!" moments. Those with weak stomachs should be prepared to close their eyes and go "Ewww!" a lot.
After an opening sequence with Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton, the film offers three stories. In one, Bruce Willis plays an honest cop - a real rarity in this town - spending his last day on the job trying to save sweet little 11-year-old Nancy (Makenzie Vega) from Roarke Jr. (Nick Stahl), the monstrous son of a corrupt senator. In doing so, he must deal with his own partner, bad cop Bob (Michael Madsen). Nancy, by the way, will grow up to be Jessica Alba.
Another story has ex-con Marv (Mickey Rourke) taking on the police, gangsters and militant hookers in his quest to avenge the murder of his honey-bunny, Goldie (Jaime King). Rourke sports prosthetic makeup that makes him look a bit like Wolverine of the X-Men. His amazing recoveries from seemingly deadly assaults, coupled with his appearance, make this segment play like a spin-off of the superhero series.
Finally, when the aforementioned militant hookers are forced to kill a creep who turns out to be a rogue cop (Benicio Del Toro), thereby risking their shaky truce with the police, bad-ass Dwight (Clive Owen) ends up in the middle of the mess, working with head hooker Gail (Rosario Dawson).
Critiquing the acting in such a stylized film would be foolish - suffice to say all the performers are appropriate to the graphic novel setting. Robert Rodriguez, who transferred the panels from the Frank Miller books to film so exactly that he gives Miller a co-director credit, presents an eye-popping nightmare cityscape of spectacular black and white, accented by splashes of color.
The visuals, though often repulsive, are mesmerizing and I was never bored by the stories. In the lobby afterward, one fan of the graphic novels confirmed that the movie was true to the books. He expressed surprise at the only change he noted - despite the abundance of shapely near-naked women in the production, Rodriguez censored a brief naked shot of the Bruce Willis character that was explicit in the book. Given Willis' comfort with on-camera nudity, it seemed odd that the visual was silhouetted out.
What the fan of the novels forgot was that, despite the "R" rating, the core audience for the film is 15-year-old heterosexual males that do not, under any circumstances, want to see male genitals on screen. In fact, these guys moan and boo loudly anytime a film dares to show a dick - just their little way of reminding the world that they are so very NOT GAY that the mere image of a penis revolts them utterly - even though most of them own one.
The sad thing is that those confused boys will gobble up this movie, embracing the ultra-violent thugs (figuratively, FOR GOD'S SAKE) as heroes. Sin City is cool, which matters a great deal to 15-year-old heterosexual males (of all ages, sexes and sexual orientations). I'm worn enough to look at the whole notion of cool with a jaundiced eye. Sure, I understand that a kid with great ambition and little power would be drawn to bad-asses wearing long coats that blow stylishly in the wind, near-invulnerable guys ready to shoot or beat their opponents while voicing a cynical quip to their big-breasted girlfriend.
Most viewers will appreciate the film as a grim, visually-stunning grotesque tempered with moments of gallows humor, but it's depressing to think of how many will simply consider it cool. I hope they understand that, while Sin City is an engaging place to visit, living there could prove toxic.