Let’s say you have a problem with a script. Say it’s too unrealistic, too obviously based on other formula fiction rather than on real life. It has nothing to do with reality and is way too lurid for anyone to possibly believe in. What do you do to fix this script? Do you call in someone who knows the streets and make it more real?
Hell no, the thing to do is make it even more lurid! If you go far enough over the top — if you finish the transition from semi-wacky to completely fucking nuts — then your story starts making sense again. That’s what this thing does. This movie is so far over the top, it comes back around from the bottom and still has enough left to get over the top a second time.
One of the best and worst things about formulaic genre fiction is the allure of sheer excess. Real literature tries to have subtlety, but genre fiction more often likes to go for the big smack. In science fiction, it might mean grand spectacle on a huge scale, or triumph or tragedy magnified to world-shaking proportions... in crime fiction, on the other hand, it means violence, in as extreme a form as possible. When second-rate writers see how violent someone else’s book is, they respond by trying to top it. After a while, a genre can develop internal conventions of its own that have nothing to do with whatever part of the real world the genre was originally based on... and part of that progression is that whatever was most shocking and attention-grabbing becomes steadily more so. So, your genre formula trends toward ever-increasing excess. And usually the result is shit, but sometimes a mad genius comes along who takes impossible degrees of excess and makes it into something cooler than realistic fiction. For those who love the genre-ness of a genre, the weirder exercises in excess can be the gems of the field.
Now combine the excesses of unrealistic formula crime fiction and noir movies with the exaggerations of the comic book world, and your reading on the excess-meter is redoubled. The result is possibly the most luridly violent crime-and-action story ever committed to film. It exists in a strange cartoon world where the characters are as bouncily resilient as Bugs Bunny, except that they bleed. The characters all take huge amounts of punishment and get up for more. Multiple bulletholes, falling ten stories, getting bounced twenty feet in the air by a speeding car, having a grenade go off four feet away — these characters are so tough that they’re hardly slowed down. It’s noir amped up to the ultimate level of unreality.
What makes all this preposterous violence workable is that it isn’t filmed to look like real life. This is more or less the first attempt to really make a live-action film look like a graphic novel. To that end, it was filmed entirely in green-screen, with the actors in an empty room being digitally inserted into an artificial world made of CGI. I remember Francis Ford Coppola back in the eighties saying that someday all movies would be made this way: the sets and even the costumes would be created digitally. The first film to be made that way was Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow (which sucked), and this is the second. It goes further, so rumor has said, in that some of the characters’ body shapes are enhanced by CGI, thus going beyond Coppola’s prediction of CGI costumes. People and places are often transformed to look like drawings — three-dimensional shapes turn into flat silhouettes, scenery varies between near-realism and stylization, and everything is filmed in black and white with occasional splashes of color. The result is visually very impressive and original, and is probably going to be remembered as influential.
This movie is often compared to the works of Quentin Tarantino, which similarly reference pulp conventions instead of reality, but this is so preposterously violent that it makes Pulp Fiction look like an episode of Barnaby Jones. Tarantino gets the best of the comparison... When watching Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill you’re very aware of how the story is driven by a unique artistic creativity, whereas Sin City leaves you feeling that the story is driven by a much more ordinary morass of personal obsessions and compulsions. The whole thing operates more on a dream level than on an art level. The obsessiveness comes through particularly in the fact that the three episodic tales that combine to make up the movie are all telling essentially the same story. Three variations on the same basic plot, told side by side.
Also, everything that the stories say about humanity is in some sense very safe and traditional. If the story can be said to be about anything larger than itself, what it’s about is the roles and duties of men and women... it’s about sex roles and gender stereotypes. And it addresses them by exaggerating them to the utmost. Every male character is ultra-tough, and almost all of them use super-deep gravelly baritone voices. The women, conversely, are almost universally strippers and hos, dressed in leather and fishnets and butt-floss. Love usually consists of no more than a fantasy or an exceptionally tender one-night stand — I don’t think a single character was married or was raising kids. The only minor characters that looked like a stable couple were two women who spent much of their brief screen time together topless for our edification.
Some have accused Frank Miller of misogyny. I wouldn’t say this movie is misogynist, but the distance from it to misogynistic territory is certainly short.
The characters live in a world where everyone knows what they gotta do and pursues it to the death. There is no questioning, no searching for other paths... in essence, it’s a world without freedom. This contributes strongly to the dreaminess, the sense of unconsciousness that the story has about it. Only rarely does something that seems thought out, rather than hallucinated, break in — for instance, when a crooked political boss tells one of the heroes:
“Power doesn’t come from a badge or a gun. Power comes from lying.”
That’s the only line in the film, I think, that could be called thought-provoking.
This repetition and reinforcement of a single repeated theme is not necessarily a weakness; sometimes, when done right, keeping a creative work confined to a narrow zone deepens its power. The example I always think of is the classic Gang of Four album Solid Gold. Every song has the same sound — and that ends up making it their strongest album. But when it comes across as obsessive focus, rather than artistic audacity, the result is less successful. This movie holds together as well as it does just because it so intensely and uncompromisingly believes in its own crazed vision; without that, it would amount to no more than some kind of ludicrous parody of hardboiledness.
Many of the movie’s strangest traits come from the desire by the directors (Robert Rodriguez assisted by Frank Miller and, in a few bits, by Quentin Tarantino) to translate Miller’s graphic novels to the screen as literally as possible. Which means that ironically, the film’s boldly original visuals grew out of a conscious effort to be unoriginal, copying the imagery on the printed page. In other areas, literal copying of the graphic novels had results that, by the standards of any ordinary movie, are very strange indeed. For instance, there’s a tremendous amount of voice-over narration, describing events that it would be far simpler to just show us happening on screen. To add to the strangeness, sometimes the voiceover says something like “I looked over at her and (something something)...” and we see him right there in front of us not doing what he says in the voiceover he’s doing right now.
Also, sometimes conventional notions of acting are simply discarded; sometimes the players don’t act their lines at all, but simply recite them, and it’s up to us to fill in the gap between performance and believability. The result of this is, oddly, not to spoil the film but to heighten the sense of everything taking place in a film-noir dream world where the rules are unlike those of our world. The artificiality of the performance complements that of the scenery. This means that I won’t even try to evaluate any of the performers for acting. There’s a tremendous list of talented names even in minor parts, but none of the roles constitutes anything very much like a human being. I’ll just say that of the three tough-guy leads, Mickey Rourke as Marv was by far the most vivid and memorable.
This movie is a remarkable creation. It’s bold, it’s unique, it’s dazzling, it’s unforgettable... it’s also, in some ways, flawed and severely limited. Some people will be completely rocked by this film. But they’d better have strong stomachs, and if there were ever a comic-related movie that children should ABSOLUTELY NOT be taken to see, this is it. Some fanboys are jizzing all over this movie, but if you are not at least somewhat a past fan of genre crime fiction or film noir, this will likely be of only academic interest, because outside of that context, it doesn’t make any damn sense.