I had high hopes for this film. Promotional clips suggested a return to form for director Robert Rodriguez, whose recent, uninspired work (Once Upon a Time in Mexico  and Spy Kids 3D ) fell far short of the promise of El Mariachi (1992).
Sadly, Sin City turns out to be a folly of the same order as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004). It is a film with a single idea that it proceeds to slam home for one-hundred-and-twenty-four grinding minutes. And this idea is purely visual: the attempt to duplicate as exactly as possible, in moving pictures, the black-and-white frames of Frank Miller's stylised graphic novel Sin City.
The film has star power: Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke, Benicio Del Toro. It offers a non-stop orgy of outrageous gags involving injury, murder and decapitation. And it is a boring, brainless exercise.
With admirable candour, Rodriguez has credited Miller as co-director. And Quentin Tarantino himself dropped over for a spot of 'special guest direction'. In fact, it would have been possible for a stray dog on the set to have also claimed such credit, if its bark could be interpreted by the cast and crew as the instruction: "Please reproduce the next frame of the comic". Sin City is the acme of mechanical, impersonal filmmaking.
Miller is one of those provocative, politically incorrect types who likes to claim that his work has no political meaning, other than to scandalise anyone who cannot take the tough stuff he dishes out. Far be it from me to point out to Miller that his sexual politics are deeply regressive and reprehensible – this is a film in which tough guys "don't hurt women", and indeed fall in love with sweet little virgins, while consorting with blade-wielding whores and (literally) castrating their enemies – and that any story where the ultimate villain is named Yellow Bastard is too hideous to even contemplate.
The narrative structure – if one can call it that – is sluggish, trudging through one story after another. Only momentarily does the film indulge in a Tarantino-style overlap between the three tales. That there happens to be three appears to be purely a matter of running-time; the sense it could just as well have comprised two or ten tales is confirmed by the depressing news of a sequel already in the works.
Inadvertently, Sin City merely exposes why it is impossible to simply 'film a comic' – the relations of space, time and storytelling on the page and on the screen are completely different. And all that remains, once this fallacy has exposed itself in the first minute or so, is the whole, overheated crime-corruption-violence-revenge fantasy of the Dark City. It's enough to make one swear off film noir for life.
© Adrian Martin July 2005