Directed by: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller || Produced by: Elizabeth Avellan, Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay by: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez || Starring: Jessica Alba, Benicio del Toro, Brittany Murphy, Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Elijah Wood
Music by: John Debney, Graeme Revell, Robert Rodriguez || Cinematography: Robert Rodriguez || Edited by: Robert Rodriguez || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 124 minutes
I think Robert Rodriguez may be one of my least favorite working filmmakers on the planet — that, or he’s close to being my most disliked filmmaker, at least within the major studio system of Hollywood. Whichever way I define my reaction, I don’t care for most of his writing, producing, or directing credits, and find his close relationship with Quentin Tarantino, one of the world’s greatest working auteurs and one of my favorite directors, puzzling. Rodriguez’s innovative work on chump-budget productions like El Mariachi (1992, his feature debut) provided a comfortable wave of good will on which the man has coasted for close to a generation, now. Fans of his throwback, grindhouse style (e.g. The Mexico Trilogy [1992, 1995, 2003], From Dusk Till Dawn , Machete ) — a far cry from Tarantino’s conscientious, deliberate elevation of similar material in legendary films such as Pulp Fiction (1994), Kill Bill (2003-2004), Inglourious Basterds (2009), etc. — must ignore lame, cornball sellouts like The Spy Kids (2001-2003, 2011) franchise, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl (2005), Shorts (2009), and Alita: Battle Angel (2019), along with outright flops like Planet Terror (2007), Machete Kills (2013), and A Dame to Kill For (2014), which form the bulk of his career. Top to bottom, I just don’t get the man’s appeal, nor do I understand how he continues to find work.
Another production often cited as one of the director’s best and most successful, which I didn’t mention above, is the crime anthology film, Sin City, an adaptation of Frank Miller’s noir graphic novel series of the same name. Co-directed and co-written by Miller, himself, alongside Rodriguez also serving as director of photography and editor, this oddball crime drama received accolades for its unique, quasi black-and-white color processing and stylized violence. Sin City, to which the commercial and critical failure, A Dame to Kill For, was a sequel, is a decent summary of Rodriguez’s overarching “auteur sensibility” and what most fans like about him; to the man’s credit, the movie flaunts an identifiable audiovisual style, characters that are larger than life and faithful to their source material, as well as unapologetic ultraviolence with endless amounts of blood and gore.
That’s all well and good, save for how Sin City’s digitally processed composite backgrounds look like shit in outdoor sequences, the film’s absurd special FX in general are comical, and its characters are near invincible, unrelatable caricatures. Miller and Rodriguez’s rendition of the former’s comic work appears so faithful as to defeat the purpose of adapting that work to film, unlike, say, Zack Snyder’s take on another Frank Miller adaptation, 300 (2007), which honored its graphic novel inspiration without plagiarizing it. Sin City on film isn’t so much an actual film as it is a blue-screen motion-comic with live actors inserted in post-production. I found myself wishing I had read the original comic series instead of wasting two hours on this incoherent hodgepodge of a big-budget fan film.
To be as brief as I can, Sin City is a conglomeration of three to four different short stories set in the eponymous noir setting, though in actuality these interlocking narratives have little to do with one another besides several meaningless cutaways to characters featured in other short stories. The first act consists of “The Hard Goodbye,” which portrays Mickey Rourke as a giant, grotesque beast of a man with a heart of gold, who hunts down the assassins and crooked clergymen responsible for the murder of his one-night stand; the second follows Clive Owen in “The Big Fat Kill,” where Owen and his former lover, Rosario Dawson, attempt to defuse an inexplicable gang war between mercenaries hired by corrupt law enforcement and armed prostitutes; the last and best segment, “That Yellow Bastard,” sees a washed up cop (Bruce Willis) take the law into his own hands (are you sensing a pattern, here?) by hunting down a serial killer and rapist (Nick Stahl), who also happens to be the son of a ruthless United States Senator (Powers Boothe).
While I understand an anthology should repeat themes or stylistic motifs from story to story, Sin City’s gratuitous — and this is coming from a hardcore action fan, mind you — cartoon violence and melodramatic, cornball dialogue become grating by the end of Rourke’s segment, and the frantic, whiplash pacing of the first two acts doesn’t help matters. What’s worse is the main characters’ obnoxious, never ending stream-of-consciousness narration, which is used to describe character motivations and setting details — more or less the entire story — forgoing more cinematic, less intrusive visual methods for which movies are built. The worst elements of Sin City’s dialogue may be these excessive voiceovers, which not only sound goofy when read by the cast, but also clash with the movie’s distinct cinematographic style.
While I would never throw Robert Rodriguez’s work in the same pile as the works of Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich, his filmography is a continual irritation for a genre-fanatic and action fan such as me. Numerous fans over the years, including peers whose knowledge of filmmaking I otherwise respect, have recommended films by Rodriguez to me given our apparent overlap in cinematic tastes — stylized ultraviolence, pulpy noir visuals, hard-boiled crime dramas, etc. — and yet I continue to be disappointed despite approaching each film with an open mind. I find his writing and directorial style haphazard and sloppy, yet without the weird, bizarre authenticity of a David Ayer or Mo Brothers film. Given how most genre fans appreciate Rodriguez’s filmography over Ayer’s or most Indonesian action cinema, I appear to be in the minority. I still argue Sin City is a crappy film, a faithful adaptation though it may be of Frank Miller’s comic, as its cartoonish action, lazy blue-screen FX, and verbose narration undercut whatever sexy noir tone it was attempting.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: With action sequences and special FX as artificial as its sense of humor, Sin City isn’t so much a traditional movie as it is a grindhouse fan’s plagiarism of another artist’s work in a different medium. I applaud Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller for their earnest attempt at a unique color palette, but this film’s literal translation, its near verbatim transfer of graphic novel to motion-picture does not work.
— However… fans of Miller’s comic bibliography will no doubt have a blast with Rodriguez’s facsimile of a pulpy noir film, given its wide range of colorful characters and not so colorful, yet memorable artistic design.
—> Sin City is NOT RECOMMENDED for its terrible outdoor cinematography, pervasive, clunky voiceovers, and tension-free action sequences.
? Why not adapt “That Yellow Bastard” into a standalone feature? That story’s narration felt the least forced and most necessary of the bunch.