Burlesque in Black and White

Watch “Ebert and Roeper” sometime, and notice the different way that each evaluates movies. Ebert decides what the movie is trying to accomplish, within the limits of its genre, and bases his thumb position upon it. Roeper, however, decides only how good the movie is, regardless of its genre, style or intentions. I predict that the duo will split on this one, with Ebert up and Roeper down.

Courtesy of Dimension Film

“Sin City” is based directly upon an extremely well-regarded comic book miniseries written and drawn by Frank Miller, whose “The Dark Knight Returns” ushered in the era of modern comics. This new order was grimmer and grittier, emphasizing well-written storytelling and taking stylistic nods from film noir, cyberpunk sci-fi and the spaghetti western. “Sin City,” in all of its two-tone glory was the apotheosis of this modern comic style, incorporating ultraviolence and detective-story intrigue along with the interestingly twisted characters common to Miller’s work.

Ultraviolence? Twisted characters? You would think Miller furiously phoned up Robert Rodriguez to direct such an adaptation, but it was in fact Rodriguez who was forced to beg Miller for “Sin City,” offering him directing credits and promising to deviate as little as possible from the comic book, even using the pages themselves as the storyboards. The end result is a comic book movie unlike any other before it, truly a living comic book — done in the black and white of the original comics.The film is divided into three stories, based on three of Miller’s tales from “Sin City.” The first, “The Hard Goodbye,” centers upon an ugly mook Marv, a role that is more Mickey Rourke than Rourke himself. Marv is ugly, idiotic and unkillable; when a hooker in his protection is murdered, he kills his way on up to the Cardinal (Rutger Hauer) to avenge her death. Rourke fits Marv perfectly, but betrays the character’s simplicity with many moments of poorly spoken dialogue. The action, however, is beautifully dynamic, surpassing the burlesque violence of “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” and “Desperado” with even more burlesque violence. Elijah Wood, as the silent and murderous Kevin, performs with scene- stealing glee, inducing amnesia regarding his famous Frodo. The second story, “The Big Fat Kill,” stars Benicio Del Toro, Clive Owen, Brittany Murphy, Rosario Dawson and a hilariously poor Michael Clarke Duncan. Here, terminal badass Dwight (Clive Owen) must dispose of a mutilated body in order to prevent a gang war. Sporting a scene directed by Quentin Tarantino for a dollar (with some of the most riveting dialogue in the sea of action scenes), the second segment is by far the campiest, with such lines as “Get me a hardtop. With a decent engine. And make sure it’s got a big trunk.” (Say it like Sean Connery playing Superman. Out loud.) This can be distracting — as compared to the other segments — but it is typical Robert Rodriguez, who has the patent on humorously over-the-top violence. The third segment, “That Yellow Bastard” deals with an honest cop (Bruce Willis), who is framed for rape of a young girl, and is hunted down upon parole so that those who framed him may recapture her. (Jessica Alba plays the grown-up stripper version.) The comparatively serious noir tone of this story is chipped away by the villain (Nick Stahl), who is bright fucking yellow, but it soon regains its seriousness under the squinty eyes of Willis, channeling his “Diehard”-era Dirty Harry. “Sin City” is the quintessential comic book movie, translating near perfectly the style and flow of Miller’s work. However, it is a comic book movie, and comes with all the baggage that makes the genre separate from most films (occasionally poor dialogue, unrealistic violence, earnest campiness, etc.). Regardless, it sets out to make an entertaining two-hour comic book, and then does it. Ebert would approve.