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In graphic detail

Gross-outs and gleeful sadism dominate as 'Sin City' stays too true to its roots.

April 01, 2005|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

DO graphic novels really need defending anymore? Because the oppositional, slightly defensive comic book guy stance is starting to feel atavistic. Michael Chabon won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," and then took a crack at the script of "Spider-Man 2." National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Jonathan Lethem just published a book of essays called "Men and Cartoons." Even "Ghost World" creator Daniel Clowes -- from somewhere deep in his alterna-comics lair in Berkeley -- is on his second movie adaptation. The term "graphic novel" alone says all there is to say about comic books' cultural rehabilitation in the last two decades.

Of course, with "Sin City," Robert Rodriguez didn't set out to protect legendary comics auteur Frank Miller's source material from Allan Bloom-style guardians of high culture but from the transmogrifications of villainous Hollywood superagents and nefarious studio execs. The road to "Sin City," in other words, was a high one -- elevated by a fan's pure adulation and loyalty. While doubtless his commitment to preserving the original work has made Rodriguez a geek-land champ -- especially as stories about his superheroic break with the Directors Guild of America have circulated (The DGA refused to let him to share directing credit with Miller, so he quit the guild), it's also led to a curious new stance, which sounds a little like the 98-pound weakling squawking supremacy. "I don't want to insult the graphic novel by turning it into cinema," Rodriguez said in a TV promo that aired last week, "I want to turn cinema into a graphic novel."

Which is ironic, considering it was Miller's great contribution to comics to make them more cinematic.

For a relentlessly violent and exploitive noir knockoff, "Sin City" is mystifyingly flat and static -- cartoonish, even, if you want to get tautological about it. (And trust me, you won't be able to help it.) Rodriguez has said it was his goal to "translate" the series into film rather than "adapt" it, without the interloping mediation of a script (the director transcribed the books, and no screenwriting credit was designated). But as someone bilingual, he should know that there's such a thing as being too literal -- you can fail to express the spirit of a thing by sticking too closely to the letter.

Cinema has plenty of things in common with sequential art, but spatial limitations, lack of sound and an inherently nonrepresentational style (compared to film, anyway) aren't three of them. In "Sin City," Miller's thought bubbles have been preserved, packed and exported into voice-over tracks as lovingly as if they had been found on scrolls in a tomb outside Cairo, and they choke the movie like a hot smog. The characters' audible musings are not the ironic, unreliable kind that contradict the action and create a tension between a character's perception and reality but a relentlessly torpor-inducing on-the-nose stream-of-consciousness -- all "bum tickers" and "fat steaks" and "crazy broads" -- that mimic the hard-boiled style of film noir spoofs.

Transpiring in the nightmare world of Basin City -- a place so corrupt even the ingenue is a stripper -- "Sin City" is a triptych of stories, loosely woven together "Pulp Fiction"-style. In the first story, John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), a cop on his last night on the job, risks his life to save an 11-year-old girl named Nancy (Makenzie Vega) from being raped and filleted by Roark Jr. (Nick Stahl), the psychotic son of a corrupt senator. (Roark Jr. is later transformed into the freak super-villain, That Yellow Bastard.) The wide-eyed child grows up to be a gyrating Jessica Alba in an abbreviated cowgirl costume. If this sounds dismaying, you don't want to know how it ends.

In the second story, a hulking man-beast and freelance avenger known as Marv (Mickey Rourke) spends the night in a heart-shaped bed with a hooker named Goldie (Jaime King) and wakes up to find her dead. The romantic interlude, we're given to understand, was a Very Big Deal for Marv (even in "Sin City," girls have standards), so he sets out to avenge her murder. After torturing a handful of thugs, Marv winds up on a desolate farm where his missing parole officer, the sexy Lucille (Carla Gugino), is being held captive by a young cannibal named Kevin (Elijah Wood). Kevin enjoys making girl sushi and then displaying the leftover heads on the wall like hunting trophies. (At least he uses the whole prostitute.)

In the third story, Dwight (Clive Owen), a private investigator, finds himself in the middle of a turf war between corrupt cops and vigilante streetwalkers when he helps kill the cop (Benicio Del Toro) who's been harassing his girlfriend, Shellie the waitress (Brittany Murphy). In the process, he's reunited with his ex, head hooker Gail (Rosario Dawson). When things start to get really gruesome, old sparks fly.

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