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Black And White And Red All Over 

Visual brilliance elevates graphic material

Storyboards, those elaborate drawings used by directors as they map out individual scenes for their respective motion pictures, have long been a mainstay in international cinema, with everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Akira Kurosawa having employed them as an integral step in the moviemaking process. With Sin City (*** out of four), Robert Rodriguez already had the work done for him before he even knew he'd be making the movie.
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IT'S A DRAW: Frank Miller's original artwork is brought to life by Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba in Sin City. (Photos: Miramax)
  • IT'S A DRAW: Frank Miller's original artwork is brought to life by Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba in Sin City. (Photos: Miramax)

That's because when Rodriguez first decided to bring the graphic novels by Frank Miller to the big screen, he chose to lift many of the images and accompanying dialogue exactly as they appeared on the page, with scarcely any changes in the angles or lighting that defined these individual panels. As a gimmick, it's a beaut: The resultant motion picture is visually stunning, a black-and-white odyssey in which speckles of color appear only sporadically and for which (shades of last year's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) all the backgrounds were digitally added at a later point.

Yet Sin City isn't mere eye candy. By remaining so faithful to Miller's vision, Rodriguez has bridged the gap between cinema and comics more explicitly than any filmmaker before him, in essence leveling the playing field and not allowing fans of either medium to establish a foothold of superiority. In fact, Rodriguez felt that Miller's contributions were so important to the finished motion picture, he insisted the artist receive a co-directing credit — and then resigned from the Directors Guild of America when the organization wouldn't allow it.

In addition to nailing the scrawl-to-screen process, Rodriguez has also created a neo-film noir that captures the mood of those time-honored flicks from the 40s and 50s more accurately than most of the imitation noirs that seem to trickle out of Hollywood every few years. Certainly, Sin City gets away with far more than its antecedents ever could — given the level of violence in this film, that's actually quite the understatement — but the characters who populate its nocturnal cityscape wouldn't exactly look out of place in, say, Murder, My Sweet or The Asphalt Jungle.

Miller wrote seven Sin City novels, and Rodriguez's adaptation covers three of them. In the manner of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, the movie is a circuitous affair in which the disparate storylines — all taking place in Basin City (Sin City for short) — occasionally overlap and characters in one vignette might appear briefly in another segment. (Speaking of Tarantino, he's billed as "Special Guest Director," having dropped by to direct one scene for his buddy Robert.)

"The Hard Goodbye" finds a misshapen Mickey Rourke (apparently using old makeup left over from the Johnny Handsome shoot) cast as Marv, a homely thug who's determined to locate the man who killed his "angel," a beautiful blonde hooker named Goldie (Jaime King). "The Big Fat Kill" finds Closer's Oscar nominee Clive Owen playing Dwight, a taciturn ex-con who decides to help an army of prostitutes cover up the murder of an abusive cop (Benicio Del Toro). And "That Yellow Bastard" centers on the attempts of an honest cop named Hartigan (Bruce Willis) to keep a young stripper named Nancy (Jessica Alba) out of the clutches of a serial rapist and murderer (Nick Stahl) who's supposedly untouchable because he's the son of Sin City's most powerful politician (Powers Boothe).

One of the defining characteristics of a choice noir is its ability to pack the proceedings with juicy plot twists and unexpected revelations. In that respect, Sin City is a disappointment, as the linear storylines largely unfold as expected. Yet this familiarity hardly breeds contempt, since Miller's suitably hard-boiled dialogue is memorable enough to keep things moving. The characters, meanwhile, are the perfect archetypes for this sort of pulpy material: The femme fatales are opinionated and independent, and you can tell the "good" criminals from the "bad" ones by the manner in which they place their own lives on the line in the service of others.

Out of a strong ensemble packed with noteworthy turns, Rourke emerges as first among equals — he hasn't been this alive on screen since his brief heyday in the early-to-mid-80s. And as a cannibalistic killer with the ability to slice, sauté and serve up his victims, Elijah Wood proves to be a menacing villain without the benefit of a single line of dialogue. Ever since this former child star graduated to adult roles, there's always been something slightly creepy about his performances — even as Frodo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and certainly as the sleazy lab assistant in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His presence here milks that unease for all it's worth.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the amount of violence exhibited in Sin City. The gore quotient is over the top, and had the movie been shot in color, it most likely would have received an NC-17 rating (to some degree, the black-and-white serves as a distancing agent). But in analyzing a film as accomplished as Sin City, one has to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water (or, more appropriately in this context, the bathtub gin out with the tap water). The glee with which Rodriguez films the sadism may be off-putting, but the joy with which he pays tribute to both the comic form and film noir is positively infectious.

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