I've been a huge fan of Frank Miller's Sin City comics for about ten years. Over the past week, I reread them all to refresh my memory, and I can now claim that Robert Rodriguez's film adaptation is, without a doubt, the most accurate comic-to-film translation in history. Rodriguez quit the DGA so that Miller could share credit, which is only fair, because what's on the screen is, word for word, angle for angle, shadow for shadow, EXACTLY what's on the page. The level of fidelity is stunning.
And yet, I'm not convinced that's automatically a great idea. Because that won't matter at all to most people who see the film. And many of the things that will remain...problematic.
The film takes you through three different books. For the most part, these stories stand alone, Pulp Fiction
So roughly, that's Books One, Three, and Four - in the order they were written, that is. Chronologically, the stories jump around so much you could almost read them in any order. However, Book Two, aka A Dame to Kill For sets up all the characters in Book Three. The film suffers greatly without this information, preferring to skip ahead to the section with the most gore.
I have always liked credit sequences which put faces to names - you know, comic-style. Here, Rodriguez ironically gives us the actor's name over a Miller drawing of their character - some of which are pretty big spoilers. It establishes straight away that the film is inherently derivative; hopelessly indebted to its source material. So, what's the point of even making a film like this, or better still, watching it, when the story has already been told, and told smashingly?
The point is, films contain at least four aspects that comics don't, all separate art forms: performance, visual effects, music, and editing.
The performances, unfortunately, are a mixed bag. Some of the actors grasp the needed tone instinctively. Mickey Rourke, under a giant prosthetic forehead and jutting chin, creates a character cool enough to get away with being as crazy as he is. His pain lives next door to his gallows humor. Elijah Wood is perfect as a mute cannibal, torturing us with dead eyes and a cryptic half-smile. (You don't get much further from Frodo than that.) Rutger Hauer is coldly terrifying as an insane cardinal. Brittany Murphy has done her homework: her shrill accent is straight outta New Jersey (a gangster's moll, think Harley Quinn for a modern reference point) and she retains the outstanding comic timing she's shown in projects like Clueless, King of the Hill, Bongwater and Unscripted. And Benicio Del Toro...well, he just doesn't know how to suck. His casual menace is effortless, and his posthumous Pez dispenser rant in the car is one of the film's most thrilling moments. (It's no coincidence that that scene was directed by Tarantino.)
Other casting decisions seem like large mistakes. Bruce Willis -- okay, nobody loves Bruce Willis more than me, I've seen Die Hard With A Vengeance probably fifteen times, but his character needs to be very old and very weak, and Bruce Willis is neither. Bruce Willis kicks ass while he brushes his teeth. Hence his whole storyline has no suspense (and we'll return to this thought in a bit). Jessica Alba -- well, she isn't as terrible as I thought she'd be, but that's not much of a compliment, is it? Look at that vapid stare on the film's poster. Is that anything a real stripper would get tips with? Clive Owen has the requisite badassary, but he cannot, even for a minute, get his American accent right, and in a project where voice is crucial to overall tone this hurts him greatly. And Michael Madsen is just plain BAD, as though he completely forgot what acting is. Putting his scene up front deals the film a body blow that it takes a while to recover from.
"Visual effects", in the context of this film, means not just theatrical scar makeup (which, awesome, no complaints, so let's move on) or digitally created backgrounds (which I think audiences are well used to by now, and which here are certainly photorealistic). Mainly, we're talking about digital grading: what used to be called color timing when done with chemicals on actual film, and is still typically referred to as color correction, especially in the advertising business, but these days is used more and more for creative purposes. For instance, in Lord of the Rings, a whole scene would be painted in an unnaturally deep blue or amber, which contributed to the fantasy storybook feel. Here, the movie was shot in color (on the 24p digital video camera invented for Attack of the Clones) and then subjectively interpreted into black and white. Some objects retain color, like a pair of blue eyes or red lips, or a pool of diseased yellow blood. Other objects gleam pure white from inside a silhouette, like a bandage or a crucifix. This is, of course, how Rodriguez is able to replicate Miller, who generally seems to be playing by the rules of stark single-source lighting but will often throw in a curveball for symbolic purposes.
So, the film has a unique look. And I dig it very much. You may too, if you enjoy studying design and cinematography. But visual effects also refers of course, to animation - to creating fluid motion out of Miller's snapshots. And here, I thought the film failed. In the sequence where Marv gets repeatedly run over by a car, his body flips through the air in the same silly, weightless way in which characters fly around in Spy Kids 2. Now, that's not a put-down; I happen to like Spy Kids 2 quite a lot. But it's a bloodless film, a children's film. This calls for more gravity.
I thought the music for this film would be easy to get right, but it's all over the map. Sometimes the sleazy saxophone is totally appropriate, occasionally the strings are pulled straight out of the 40's, but more often than not the score distracts from the voice-over, has strange and indistinct orchestration (What's up with that girl moaning all the time, especially in the aforementioned roadkill scene? What is that
supposed to be like?), and when it should belong to the scene, it simply isn't melodramatic enough
. The wildest departure musically (the only real departure at all, actually, from the book) is when Hartigan walks into the saloon and they're blasting generic thumpy techno. Marv is very clear in stating that this joint only plays old country, like Merle Haggard
and Hank Williams
. Hence the cowgirl theme - or did no one notice what little clothing Ms. Alba was wearing?
And lastly, the editing. More specifically, the pacing. Rodriguez uses all of the books' portraits, but none of their glacial momentum, and so the impact is hugely diminished, and the film has the same problem as all of the Mariachi movies: It moves too fast, refusing to dwell on a single moment, and so it's impossible to care about any of the characters. For all his indie clout, he subscribes to the Bruckheimer philosophy of action sequences, which says that if you just keep cutting every two seconds the audience will be entertained. (To contrast, in the Kill Bill films, Tarantino, working from the kung fu and spaghetti western traditions, prefers to sloooooowly build tension within long takes, and lets martial arts play as long as possible, so you can see that impressive moves are truly being busted upon suckaz.)
Now, of course, this could just be me. I could just be playing What If like all good fanboys, since pacing in a comic is subjective, and that's what makes it so cool. But I don't think so. Because Miller is a master of SIZE. Most pencillers get handed a splash page (that is, using the entire page for a single panel) once per issue, with maybe one two-page spread later on when the heroes leap into action. Miller uses splash pages as much as possible. This vastly alters the typical comic rhythm. Sure, you could just glance at it, if you believe that it's there to convey plot information and nothing more. But I think Miller wants you to stare at every single fold in a trenchcoat, every rough brick, every slash of rain. He could easily get the same thing done in a quarter of the pages. Anyone could. But he wants you to really suck it in. Breathe it.
I don't think Rodriguez has the ability to do that, because anyone who knows anything about the way he makes films (writing, storyboarding, lighting, shooting, directing, editing, scoring, effects-ing all by himself, all in his garage whenever possible) knows that he is the most hyper man alive today. He prefers to just do something himself rather than finding a collaborator he trusts, because it's faster. I can easily imagine him reading a two-hundred page Sin City book in five minutes - flip, flip, flip, okay, got it, done. No, Robert. You don't get extra credit for finishing before the rest of the class. Slow down. LIVE THERE.
To use a practical example, near the end of That Yellow Bastard, Hartigan infiltrates the Roark farm and approaches the barn, where we know the love of his life is being held. In the book, we get a double page spread of an overhead angle from outside the barn, the white boards converging toward Hartigan's small figure exactly like the bars of his cell did earlier. You turn the page to see... ANOTHER double page spread of Hartigan approaching, only a few feet closer, the barn doors now shooting straight up like spikes on an iron fence. You turn the page again to see a full-page reverse angle from INSIDE the barn as Hartigan peers into the dark. Still you're not allowed to see what horrors are taking place, and this makes your imagination run wild.
In the film, all three of those angles are there, precisely, but bam bam bam and they're over. There's no suspense, no dread, no chance to believe what Hartigan clearly believes, which is that Nancy is probably dead already, and either way he's not leaving that barn alive. Truncated, the shots become superfluous, a useless holdover from classic Hollywood, when everyone was shown walking from their car to their apartment door. This problem - no momentum, hence no motivation - lies in all three storylines. There's not enough time with Marv and Goldie, so his detective quest seems rather random. There's no background info on Dwight and Gail or Dwight and Miho, so his devotion to Old Town and Manute's desire to crush it both seem pretty suicidal.
A lot of critics like to throw around the term "comic-book movie" to insult any movie with a cartoonish tone. They end up insulting the art form of comics as a whole, implying that anything printed on two-dimensional paper must have one-dimensional characters. Miller found a way to make pulps resonate with true horror and Greek tragedy, but he did it more through his shapes and shadows than his stories. If the art is taken away, something else must be added. Rodriguez could have learned from the excellent X-Men and Spider-Man films, and realized that a static tale, when brought into a moving medium, must be carefully retooled to properly fit it. Instead he assumed that slavish faithfulness would translate into quality. Sadly, he was wrong.
All the same, I'm tempted to recommend this film to people who enjoy noir or ultraviolence or black humor in general. This degree of meticulous recreation is a remarkable achievement nonetheless.