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Lionsgate / 147 Minutes / 2005 / Unrated / Street Date: April 26, 2011
While he’s occasionally been overshadowed by friend and fellow auteur Quentin Tarantino, director Robert Rodriguez continues to impress as not only a great visual storyteller but also someone who has become a “jack of all trades” when it comes to cinematic projects. Since arriving on the scene with his famously low-budget El Mariachi in 1992, Rodriguez has also become something of a maverick innovator known for delivering projects on time and under budget - often by multi-tasking as writer, director, cinematographer, editor and composer, among other duties. As such, he’s become one of the biggest proponents of digital technology, having gravitated toward this more immediate and economic approach to feature filmmaking out of necessity. His groundbreaking work on the profitable and popular Spy Kids series only helped cement his reputation as a talented director who can deliver the goods. So when it was announced that he would be adapting Frank Miller’s hallowed Sin City graphic novels as a major motion picture, I knew it was the perfect marriage of visionary comic legend with stylish and innovative movie director.
For years it was a combination of Miller’s own reluctance to allow his revered film noir tales to be made into movies and an obvious lack of technology to remain faithful to the graphic novels’ high contrast, black-and-white look that precluded any potential adaptations since the first in the series of books appeared in 1991. But having cut his teeth on advancements in both digital post-production technology and state-of-the-art, high-definition video cameras, Rodriguez - who was also an avid fan of Miller’s work - was able to finally convince the author that he could effectively translate his material into the film medium while remaining wholly faithful to the author’s original vision. After a bit of arm-twisting and a remarkably convincing short film test - which became the opening introduction to the feature-length project - Miller agreed to not only allow Rodriguez to make a film based on four of his dark stories, but also to serve alongside him as co-director. Thus, the long-awaited movie version of Frank Miller’s Sin City was born and released in 2005.
Sin City is basically an anthology film combining three of Miller’s stories - “That Yellow Bastard,” “The Hard Goodbye” and “The Big Fat Kill,” all bookended by the short hit-man story “The Customer is Always Right.” Given that some of the characters in Miller’s fascinating world sometimes cross over into other tales, Rodriguez has wisely taken a page from his pal Tarantino and opted to eschew the standard linear plotline and tell the stories in bite-sized chunks, out-of-sequence. The film opens with the nameless hit-man (Josh Hartnett) seducing his latest victim (Marley Shelton) on the balcony of an apartment building. Keeping true to Miller’s Raymond Chandler-inspired narration, Hartnett does a voiceover worthy of Bogart in explaining how he’s about to dispatch this job-for-hire. After the opening credits we’re treated to the beginning of “That Yellow Bastard,” wherein a cop named Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is racing to stop a crazed serial killer known as Junior (Nick Stahl) from raping and killing an 11-year-old girl named Nancy Callahan. Arriving at a dockside warehouse, Hartigan meets up with his partner Bob (Michael Madsen), who attempts to convince him to leave since Junior’s father is apparently a wealthy and influential senator in Basin City (aka “Sin City”). Hartigan manages to find Nancy and Junior and even manages to seriously wound the would-be molester before Bob shoots Hartigan, leaving his partner for dead.
Next we meet a hulking brute named Marv (Mickey Rourke), star of “The Hard Goodbye,” who’s just enjoyed a night of drunken passion with a goddess named Goldie (Jaime King) when things go all wrong. He wakes up to find Goldie has been murdered while lying beside him and the police are already on their way. Marv realizes he’s been framed and since he’s out on parole, he won’t go down without a fight. He makes a swift and violent getaway from the cops and tracks down his parole officer Lucille (Carla Gugino), who gives him some medication to calm him while she tries to sort things out. But Marv does a little detective work on his own and finds out that Goldie was a prostitute known for servicing the clergy of Basin City. He further learns that the influential Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer) and a deranged cannibalistic killer named Kevin (Elijah Wood) are behind Goldie’s murder. Marv ventures out to the Roark family farm and encounters the silent but deadly Kevin, who overpowers him and locks him inside a room with Lucille, who’s also been captured. Pointing to a row of women’s heads mounted on the wall, Lucille explains to Marv how Kevin keeps those as trophies but eats the rest of his victims. Marv and Lucille manage to bust out before Kevin returns, but Lucille is gunned down by police as they attempt to escape from the farm.
Meanwhile, Marv keeps seeing a woman who looks like Goldie following him. The woman turns out to be Goldie’s sister, Wendy, who is just as anxious to find out who killed her. With help from a group of Basin City prostitutes, Wendy interrogates Marv, believing he’s the one responsible for Goldie’s death. Satisfied that he’s been set up, Wendy agrees to help him get revenge. They both return to the Roark farm and Marv once again encounters Kevin - only this time he’s better-prepared. He handcuffs himself to the stealth-like predator … then proceeds to dismember him, leaving his remains to be eaten by Kevin’s pet wolf. Marv then decapitates Kevin and takes his head to Cardinal Roark, with the full intent of doing the same to him. As Marv is about to finish off the Cardinal, however, the police arrive and he’s arrested and accused of not only killing Kevin and Cardinal Roark, but also Lucille, Goldie and the other girls found on the farm. Marv is sentenced to die in the electric chair, but not before Wendy visits him on death row to thank him for avenging Goldie’s death. Marv goes to the electric chair, proudly knowing that he did right by both Goldie and Wendy.
The third story, “The Big Fat Kill,” begins with Jackie Boy (Benicio del Toro) harassing his girlfriend Shellie (Brittany Murphy) about letting him and his drunken friends into her apartment. Shellie is in a bind, however, since she’s just spent the night with Dwight (Clive Owen) who is still in the apartment. Once Jackie Boy barges in, Dwight decides he’s going to teach him a lesson about mistreating Shellie - he corners him in the bathroom and callously shoves his face into the toilet. Embarrassed, Jackie Boy and his gang make a swift departure, with Dwight hot on their heels. He tracks them down to Basin City’s “Old Town,” a section populated and run by the city’s prostitutes. When Jackie Boy pushes one of the girls a little too far, they kill him and his gang. But after checking his pockets Dwight learns that Jackie Boy is actually a Basin City cop … and if the police find out who’s responsible for his death, the girls of Old Town will no longer enjoy their police protection from the mob. As a favor to Gail (Rosario Dawson), the prostitute’s ringleader he once had a thing for, Dwight agrees to dispose of the bodies. But there’s a snitch among the ranks of Old Town and Dwight is ambushed by a group of mercenaries hoping to bring evidence of Jackie Boy’s death - to wit, his decapitated head - back to the mob. It takes some quick thinking and more than a little brute force on Dwight’s part to make things right between the cops, the mob and the girls of Old Town.
Returning to the “That Yellow Bastard” storyline, we learn that Hartigan miraculously survived his gunshot wounds and is now being framed by Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) for what he did to his son. Unwilling to give Nancy up, Hartigan goes to prison for molesting the 11-year-old. During his eight-year stint he receives frequent letters from Nancy, who uses a pen name so no one can find her. But when the letters suddenly stop, Hartigan assumes the worse. When an envelope arrives with a girl’s index finger inside, he agrees to confess to the crime he didn’t commit in order to get out on parole. He immediately tracks the 19-year-old Nancy (Jessica Alba) down … and realizes he’s been duped into leading Junior - now a deformed yellow freak after undergoing bizarre medical procedures - right to her. Although Junior manages to subdue Hartigan and kidnap Nancy, Hartigan escapes and tracks them both down to the notorious Roark farm where he again confronts Junior and once again manages to save Nancy from becoming his latest victim. The film closes with a brief coda from “The Customer is Always Right” wherein Becky (Alexis Bledel), the working girl from Old Town who ended up ratting out Dwight earlier, is seen leaving the hospital and meeting up with the nameless hit-man from the film’s introduction.