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"Sin City": Sexy Movie, Impotent DVD

The Film

There are a great many movies which come out of seemingly nowhere to surprise and delight us. On the other hand, there are also a great many movies which carry with them tremendous baggage in getting to the screen.

Guess which kind Sin City is?

That’s right, being a comic book adaptation, Sin City is subject to all the usual scrutinizing from the often-quite-vocal sequential art crowd. But Sin City went under the microscope to a previously unheard-of degree. Based on a series of graphic novels by comic book writer/artist Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez’s film adaptation was touted in pre-release publicity as the most faithful comic book adaptation of all time. Miller was brought in as co-director, a move cementing Rodriguez’s street cred though it cost him his presence in the Director’s Guild. With each new production shot or snippet of information, the promise of an ultra-faithful Sin City film seemed increasingly exciting, and the finished production is unquestionably able to deliver when it comes to faithfulness to the source material.

But is it a good movie?

Set in the titular Sin City (short for Basin City), the film presents us with a series of integrated vignettes which follow the trials and tribulations of the pimps, pushers, killers, cops, and even politicians that call the gritty and grimy metropolis home. One story follows the hulking, brutish Marv as he searches for the man that killed his one-night stand. Another highlights photographer Dwight as he struggles to prevent a gang war in one of the city’s shadier districts. Still another follows a retired cop as he attempts to protect the life of a girl he saved once before, many years ago. All these tales and more play out across the length of the film’s two-hour-plus running time, and though they’re each different, they share a pulpy and film noir-esque aesthetic style that lends an unusually high level of narrative and stylistic coherency to the proceedings.

It’s a premise with inherent potential. Does it live up to it? Let’s not mince words: Yes, Sin City kicks ass.

To be sure, the movie has its detractors, making it easily one of the more controversial films of the year. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s certainly not for everybody. Sin City is gloriously over-the-top: overacted, gratuitously violent, pulpy almost to the point of self-parody, unforgivingly misogynistic, and insanely overwrought. It’s every hard-boiled film noir cliché delivered with all the subtlety of a kick to the crotch. Sin City doesn’t just wear its influences (the EC pulps of the 50s and the work of writers like Spillane and Hammet) on its sleeve, it screams them at the top of its lungs through a megaphone.

But if you can appreciate and enjoy that kind of movie, it’s unarguably well-crafted.

I won’t say that Sin City doesn’t have flaws. They are certainly there, and are at points quite glaring. The film’s non-linear structure can be confusing upon first viewing. Some of the more cartoonish violence does threaten to pull the viewer out of the action and the close fidelity to the source material (most of the dialogue is lifted straight from Miller’s original stories, while many shots are exact recreations of comic panels) occasionally hampers the film. Like a poorly-performed puppet show, the strings become just a little bit too visible.

And the staccato dialogue– looks good on paper– but on screen– it’s perhaps–

Somewhat awkward.

Fortunately, the movie is just self-aware enough to work. All the ridiculous violence and reliance on film noir clichés would only be a problem if the movie took itself too seriously. Thankfully, though, there’s a nice use of dark humor which makes it all click. If you can get in the right mood, and accept the movie’s many faults and idiosyncrasies, Sin City is fantastic entertainment. It’s not thematically complex or particularly intelligent, but it’s a damn fun and stylish ride, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

That’s not to say there’s no depth in Sin City. On the contrary, there’s some fundamental but still intelligent musings on nobility, compromise, self-sacrifice, loss, and dedication to be found if you’re willing to look hard enough. But those are fringe benefits more than they are essential components.

Sin City is elevated to a rousing success from a potential failure by two attributes in particular: its visual style and its superlative cast. Much has been made of the film’s unique look, and with good cause. It’s quite possibly one of the most visually striking films ever made, with liberal splashes of color mixed into the primarily black-and-white palette, evocative landscapes, and dizzying use of silhouettes and perspective shots. The cast, meanwhile, is note-perfect, which is no small accomplishment given the larger-than-life feel of the characters they play. Mickey Rourke brings Marv’s primal instinct, clarity of motive, and brutal strength into clear focus, Bruce Willis plays a likeable and admirably disciplined Hartigan, and Elijah Wood and Nick Stahl’s villainous performances are the stuff of nightmares. Clive Owen plays an appropriately dedicated and tough Dwight, and the women are universally strong and sexy, with Devon Aoki’s sword-wielding Miho deserving special mention. And the most important character in the story, Sin City itself, with its palpably cold, wet, and dark atmosphere, adds considerable gravitas to the whole movie.

Ultimately, it’s a film which succeeds not on the basis of having any grand insights into the human condition, but because it’s a blast to watch. Pure and simple, it’s a pleasure to take in, and a fantastic movie with which to sit back in a chair and enjoy the ride. That’s not the most profound of accolades, but it’s the level on which Sin City works best.

The DVD

Unfortunately, while the film itself is a delight, this initial, barebones DVD release leaves much to be desired. The film’s release earlier in the year was accompanied, to the mirth of many a fan, by the announcement of an impending special edition DVD release of the film which would boast considerable extra features and options. Chief among these would be the ability to watch the film’s vignettes individually. Regrettably, this release has been delayed for the time being, forcing Sin City fans to either hold out or pick up the barebones version of the movie currently available.

Thankfully, the DVD has high audiovisual quality. Digitally shot, the video in Sin City is superb, without a trace of compression, artifacting, noise, or smearing. Colors, when they appear, are vivid and striking. Both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 are offered, with both tracks satisfying. The DTS track features a barely-noticeable humming noise during dialogue, but only some audio setups will even make it apparent. For the most part, the audio is highly satisfying, with a full, dynamic range.

Still, though, this release lacks any special features, save only for a ten-minute, promotional “making-of” piece which scarcely bears mention. Those hoping for trailers, TV spots, commentary tracks, or anything of the sort will be sorely disappointed.

Overall, while the movie itself pleases, the DVD comes as a recommendation to only the most impatient and/or free-spending Sin City fans. The rest of us would be well-advised to hold out for the coming double-dip and its bevy of extra features, which will no doubt serve to make an already great movie even more intriguing.

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