Sin City

When I recall moments from “Sin City,” what I see in my mind are stark graphic-novel images — men drawn with jagged lines and sharp angles, women with impossible curves, the dialogue conveyed in all-caps bubbles above the characters’ heads. This, despite the fact that “Sin City” is live action, not a cartoon, with real humans playing all the roles and the dialogue spoken as in any other film. But the movie looks, feels and sounds so much like a graphic novel miraculously sprung to life that in my memory, that’s what it is. It is one of the most visually impressive films I’ve ever seen.

It’s a collaboration between writer/director Robert Rodriguez (“Desperado,” the “Spy Kids” movies) and Frank Miller, a comic book writer on whose graphic novels the film is based and to whom Rodriguez insisted on giving co-director credit — going so far as to resign from the Directors Guild of America when that organization’s rules prohibited the credit. Rodriguez loves the books’ noir-ish dialogue and its grim stories of shady characters patrolling alleys and strip clubs in a large, faceless city. And he has gone to extraordinary lengths to give the film the same qualities as the graphic novels, even framing his shots (he acts as his own cinematographer) so they’ll resemble the comic book panels on which they are based.

This includes shooting the film in black-and-white except for occasional small elements of color: a woman’s dress, or a spurt of blood, or Yellow Bastard’s face, for example. It also includes creating events that are physically impossible — usually in regards to how far someone is propelled by a punch to the face — because that’s how they looked in the graphic novels.

Of course, slavish devotion to a text has been the downfall of many movies; see the first two Harry Potter films, for example, which accurately transcribed the books’ content yet failed to capture their magic. But it works here, probably due to Miller’s intimate involvement with the production, ensuring the film retains not just the look of its source material but its tone, too — its dark mood swings, its hard-boiled love affairs, its grimly funny violence.

Sin City is the nickname for Basin City, a distinctly grimy metropolis that is the setting for the film’s story — its handful of separate stories, actually, all connected by characters and locales but shown to us slightly out of sequence. Like “Pulp Fiction” (and that isn’t the last reference I will make to that film), finding the connecting threads and figuring out the proper chronology of them is part of the fun.

The closest thing to a “good guy,” at least in the traditional movie sense, is John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), a cop who is working his last day on the job when he is ambushed while trying to bring down a notorious rapist/killer. I want to tell you more about his story, but it would ruin some of the surprise. He remains a true hero, though, albeit a grim, tragic one.

He is in many ways a contrast to Marv (Mickey Rourke), a brutal ex-con with a boxer’s nose and a ham-sized chin who, despite his violent, cynical ways, knows true love when he finds it. That he finds it in the arms of a prostitute named Goldie (Jaime King) does not make it any less enraging when she is killed by an unknown assassin. This sends him on a murderous mission to find the assailant, eventually leading him to the den of a mute, baby-faced cannibal named Kevin (Elijah Wood), whose lair is the stuff of which nightmares are made.

Then there’s Dwight (Clive Owen), a regular at the strip club that appears in all the film’s plot lines, who develops a thing for Shellie (Brittany Murphy), a waitress there. She is tormented by her abusive ex-boyfriend Jack (Benicio Del Toro), whom Dwight threatens, resulting in a chase that leads them to Sin City’s Old Town, where the police aren’t welcome and where prostitutes dispense justice themselves.

Those are the basic stories, none of them particularly complex but all of them thrilling, horrific and garishly engrossing. They are, like “Pulp Fiction” (told you it would turn up again), well, pulpy — pure entertainment, without a real “point,” per se. The dialogue is peppered with the empurpled language of the 1940s detective flick, where women are called “dames” and a bad heart is a “bum ticker,” and where all characters express their thoughts in eloquent, steel-throated voice-over narration.

Despite all of the stories having women as their catalysts, the acting among the ladyfolk leaves something to be desired. Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke, on the other hand, both give outstanding performances. In particular, I think this film may do for Mickey Rourke what “Pulp Fiction” did for John Travolta.

Shooting in black-and-white and so thoroughly re-creating the look of the graphic novels works for the film. It doesn’t come across as a “gimmick” but as a medium, simply a different way of telling the story. It is without question the best film released so far in 2005, and its dark tones, sly humor and wantonly extravagant entertainment value lead me to believe it will remain near the top throughout the year.

A (2 hrs., 6 min.; R, a lot of violence, some of it graphic; a little profanity and sexual dialogue; some nudity.)