The first thing that catches your eye in Sin City is the white-hot glow of the city lights against the nighttime sky. Their sharp beams slice through the inky blackness like blades, illuminating the deserted rooftops and trash-strewn alleyways of Basin City. Along with the giant moon that hovers in the heavens, these glaring bulbs provide the only light the tormented citizens of this metropolis ever see-the only thing that stands between them and permanent darkness. Gradually, other colors work their way into the frame: a red dress here, a pair of blue eyes there. Set against the film's stark black-and-white backgrounds, these flashes of color are so sharp that they seem to bleed off the screen.
Scene for scene, it's safe to say that you've never seen another movie that looks like Sin City. It's also safe to say that you've never seen a comic-book movie that's as faithful to its source material. Director Robert Rodriguez has essentially treated Frank Miller's popular graphic novels as both the storyboard and script for his movie version, lifting dialogue and even specific images directly off the page. If you're a fan of the comic, it will send a chill up your spine to see Miller's universe so lovingly rendered onscreen. At the same time, though, by remaining so wedded to its source, the film winds up retaining many of the problems that plague the Sin City books, including the overripe narration, the adolescent depiction of women and the author's own peculiar brand of machismo. At a certain point, you have to ask yourself whether faithfulness alone is a virtue...or a sin.
The film's plot is derived from three of the seven Sin City tomes. Rather than weave these stories together, Rodriguez lets them play out individually, although certain characters do recur in each segment. The first storyline revolves around Marv (a barely recognizable Mickey Rourke), a not-so-gentle giant of a man who takes it upon himself to track down the killer of a hooker who once showed him kindness. Clive Owen stars in the next segment as Dwight, a conflicted criminal who reluctantly decides to help his ex-lover Gail (Rosario Dawson)-the leader of Basin City's sizeable prostitute population-out of a jam involving a dead police officer (Benicio Del Toro) and a hired gang of mercenaries. The final story follows Hartigan (Bruce Willis), a weary cop on the verge of retirement who single-handedly saves 11-year-old Nancy Callahan from the psychotic son of a powerful senator. For this selfless act, he's riddled with bullets, framed for the kidnapping and thrown in the slammer. Eight years pass until Hartigan is finally released, just in time to rescue the now 19-year-old Nancy (Jessica Alba) all over again.
Despite the copious ultra-violence and gleefully warped plots, the Sin City comics are, at heart, straightforward morality tales. Miller's heroes may be brutish, sadistic and borderline-insane (or, in the case of Marv, all of the above), but each of them has an unerring sense of what is right and is willing to give his life for the cause. They're the bastard children of Sam Spade, Mike Hammer and all those other private dicks from the pulp-fiction era. Miller has been very open about acknowledging those dime-store novels, as well as the movies made during the golden age of film noir, as the inspiration for Sin City. Their influence can be seen on every page of the comic and carries over into the film as well.
This is easily Rodriguez's most disciplined piece of direction to date. I've been hard on the director in the past, not because he's untalented, but because he's an underachiever. As much as I admire his sheer love of the filmmaking process, that same passion tends to shoot him in the foot when it comes to the actual craft of making a movie. Having Miller by his side as a co-director on Sin City seems to have calmed him down. There's a focus here that Rodriguez hasn't shown in a long while (if ever before); scenes actually end rather than trail off and more attention is paid to pacing and tone. The director's fearlessness about employing new technology also serves him well-with its shimmering photography and beautiful backgrounds, Sin City is a far more effective advertisement for the future of digital cinema than anything George Lucas has come up with yet.
And yet, for all its visual razzle-dazzle and enjoyably bad-ass attitude, there's something curiously empty about Sin City. One of the things I personally enjoy about comic-book movies is seeing how the director chooses to imagine the world of the comic onscreen. Of course, these visions can sometimes go horribly wrong (Catwoman), but in other cases they can complement and even enhance the source material (Hellboy). Somehow, producing a direct facsimile of what's on the page seems less exciting, even if the technology behind it is impressive. This is especially true of Sin City, where what's on the page could stand some tweaking. For example, I've never found Miller's Hammett and Chandler impressions to be entirely convincing; while some of the narration captures that hardboiled style, other passages sound like entries in a teenage boy's diary. The same teen boy must have been responsible for creating the women of Sin City, who all seem to have stepped out of an S&M photo shoot or a striptease class or both. At least when reading the comics, you can take breaks in between volumes to keep the tedium from setting in. The film plunges you into this world for two full hours and by the time the credits rolled, I, for one, was ready to leave Basin City behind in the rearview mirror.