RECAP: Sin City

Sin City (2005): Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller

An homage to crime noir, the Sin City comic series earned numerous awards throughout its early 1990s run. Frank Miller lived through a dark time in New York’s history, and he poured that pathos into his black-and-white-and occasional-color comic series.

The film adhered to Miller’s aesthetic in tone and visuals. Perhaps no film has come as close to its source material as Sin City.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Three flawed but mostly good guys fight corruption, kidnapping, and murder in the you-don’t-want-to-visit-there town of Basin City, better known as Sin City. 

Hero (6/10)

Sin City‘s biggest man is Sin City’s biggest threat, and also our hero. Mickey Rourke gets the largest role, literally and figuratively, to play, and behemoth of a creature named Marv.

Rourke is unrecognizable as Marv, whose face has been flattened so that the line of his nose runs uninterrupted up his forehead. When Marv gets mad he resembles a falcon.

Soon after we meet him, he’s mad. Marv is loving on a beautiful woman, an angel, named Goldie. He doesn’t know why she took to him, only that her love saved him. Also, according to Marv, she has perfect boobs.

Marv about to kill his creator, Frank Miller
Marv about to kill his creator, Frank Miller

Some goon sneaks into their hotel room while they sleep and murders Goldie. Marv’s been around enough to recognize a set up, so when the cops show up, he explodes through the door, leaps a dozen stories, grabs a railing, swings up over it, leaps through a window, and falls another dozen stories into a pile of trash. Unhurt.

Perhaps no character not imbued with superpowers has ever withstood as much damage as Marv. He is hit three times in a row by a speeding car. Cops riddle him with machine gun bullets. After that he wakes in a hospital. While imprisoned in Kevin the Cannibal’s lair, Marv rips a hole in a brick wall.

All this to avenge Goldie, a woman he barely knew. Didn’t even know she had a twin sister.

***

Our second hero is police detective John Hartigan (Bruce Willis). Hartigan begins his story on his “last day on the job,” one of crime fiction’s funniest cliches, but here played straight. Hartigan is trying to tie up his career’s one loose end, as he tells it, the kidnapping of young, innocent Nancy Callahan.

There’s this guy, see, and he’s taken the girl, see, and he’s planning on doing bad things with her, see? Hartigan sees. He tracks Nancy to a warehouse by the docks. Hartigan’s partner (Michael Madsen, really phoning it in) tires to talk him out of it. Hartigan ends their partnership with a punch to face.

Hartigan with unexplained forehead scar.
Hartigan with unexplained forehead scar.

On his way to rescue Nancy, Hartigan’s “bum ticker” kicks in. He’s got the angina. But he fights his way through some thugs to find the creep. Turns out he’s the son of Senator Roark, Sin City’s most powerful resident.

Hartigan chases Nancy and the Roark kid to the end of a dock. Hartigan shoots off the guy’s ear, and then his dick. He’s about to kill the creep when Bob, good ole Bob, betrays Hartigan by shooting him in the back.

Hartigan wakes up in a hospital bed facing down Senator Roark. Next thing he knows, its eight years in solitary. All because he won’t confess to all of the Roark kid’s rape and murders.

What keeps Hartigan going? It ain’t his bum ticker. It’s letter from “Cordelia” who is actually Nancy. They arrive each Thursday, until one day they don’t. That upsets Hartigan. Finally, a bloody envelope with severed finger arrives, and that’s it for Hartigan.

He confesses to everything, tells ’em just what they want to hear, so he can get out. The first person he sees on the outside? Bob, the guy who shot him in the back. Hartigan is happy to see him. That’s what solitary will do to you.

Hartigan visits Nancy’ apartment. She’s not there, but he finds where she works: a saloon called Kadie’s. Hartigan walks in and learns who she is. That’s when it hits him: she’s got all ten fingers and all ten toes, and the yellow guy that visited him in his cell, the man who made him want to vomit, has followed him.

Hartigan hastens to leave, realizing that the yellow bastard didn’t know where Nancy was, but he knew Hartigan would find out. Nancy spots Hartigan and the jig is up.

***

Our third hero is Dwight McCarthy. Clive Owen sheds most of his British accent and none of his foppishness to play the loner tough guy. We don’t know much about Dwight’s backstory, which seems more interesting, but enough to know that he doesn’t belong anywhere he goes.

Clive Owen and Brittany Murphy.
Clive Owen and Brittany Murphy

Dwight, in a voiceover, tells us that he is a wanted murderer who changed his face to return to Sin City. If he’s arrested and fingerprinted, he’ll head back to jail and probably fry in The Chair. That threat doesn’t keep him from town.

Dwight gets mixed up in some badness when he defends a paramour working at Kadie’s. Brittany Murphy plays Shellie, the dame Dwight got mixed up with. He beats up an ex-boyfriend, who Dwight follows into Old Town, Domain of the Whores.

Dwight has some standing relationship with Gail, Queen of Old Town. I know this because I can read context clues such as the two times they make out, once after Dwight slaps Gail.

After discovering that a punk they killed is a cop, Dwight volunteers to drive the body to the tar pits, that Triassic Age eraser of wrongs, and is beset by renegade Irish marauders.

Villain (4/10)

With so many heroes to tell their stories (and they do a lot of telling), Sin City doesn’t have time to elevate its villains to equal status. It tries anyway.

The Yellow Bastard (Nick Stahl, unrecognizable in yellow skin) opens the film as a serial child rapist and murderer. Fortunately, we are spared any sight of this. He’s kidnapped 11-year-old Nancy Callahan, a scared, tough girl with adorable brunette bangs.

The Bastard is the son of a prominent Senator Roark, so he believes he is untouchable. Our first sight of him is from Nancy’s point of view as he approaches her, which is a shot of his crotch filling the screen. Hey, accuse Sin City of many things, but not subtlety.

If Gollum lived in Sin City, he'd be this guy.
If Gollum lived in Sin City, he’d be this guy.

The Bastard enjoys tormenting Hartigan almost as much as Nancy. Later he claims that he’s killed “hundreds” of girls. Nancy seems to be the only one who escaped his clutches.

That’s a wrong he seeks to right after Hartigan’s release. (It’s hard to understand why the retired cop was released from prison after he confessed to crimes.) The Bastard was shot in the dick by Hartigan during their first encounter, and dozens of surgeries and experimental treatments were able to restore his sexual powers (thank God for that!), but they turned his skin yellow. They also gave him elephant-like ears and a huge paunch, for some reason.

The Yellow Bastard kidnaps Nancy a second time and tortures her in his rape barn on the family farm. She never screams, convinced that screams are what gets him off. She’s right. Hartigan rescues Nancy a second time, and he destroys the Bastard’s equipment for a second time. That was a satisfying sight.

***

Jackie Boy (Benecio Del Toro) is a man tormented by an ex-lover, Shellie (Brittany Murphy, in a role she was born to play. JB, ready to forgive Shellie for getting mad at him, shows up at her apartment with four friends, ready to challenge her resistance.

JB, we are led to believe, is a regular street tough. He’s easily roughed up by Dwight in Shellie’s bathroom, nearly drowned in his own piss. “I’m Shellie’s new boyfriend and I’m out of my mind,” Dwight says. To shake off that humiliation, Jackie Boy and his pals drive through Old Town, province of Sin City’s gun-toting whores.

Jackie trolls a young Gilmore Girl (Alexis Bledel as Becky) who says she doesn’t do “group jobs.” Jackie doesn’t realize that she’s baiting him into a quintuple homicide. As the car reaches the end of the road, literally and figuratively, Miho, whirling dervish swords woman, drops in to stab two of the guys through the car’s roof. She decapitates another fleeing the car.

Jackie Boy loses a hand to a swastika-shaped throwing star. He crawls toward that hand, wrapped around a gun, and bites his own finger off the gun to point it at Miho, who throws a bullet into the barrel. When Jackie Boy pulls the trigger, the gun backfires into his head. Miho wants to decapitate him, but she pulls back enough to make “a Pez dispenser out of him.”

Turns out Jackie Boy was a cop, and his death will reignite the gang and cop war on the prostitutes. Dwight offers to bury his body in the local tar pits. Even in death, Jackie Boy torments Dwight. He taunts him about smoking. “Nobody ever really quits,” the dead cop says. “You shut the hell up,” Dwight says many times.

These are two of several baddies in Sin City. With so many characters and stories, they are not allowed enough time to develop beyond being brutal and petty. Fortunately, for Sin City, brutality and pettiness are just what the film needs, and nothing more.

Action/Effects (8/10)

Action scenes are deliberate, brutal, and swiftly finished. Sin City is about how terrible life is, how violence and degradation are as common as stoplights. Physical conflict is not something that characters build up to, it’s something they do to survive.

The greatest bit of violence occurs in Dwight’s section, a vignette called The Big Fat Kill. Dwight, as mentioned above, drives the cop’s dismembered corpse to the local tar pits. He about to shove the car, with the bodies inside, in the pits when a shot rings out and hits Dwight straight in the chest.

Irish. Always the Irish. In the wester United States, it’s always the Irish. They leave Dwight to retrieve the cop’s head, until they realize the well placed shot to the chest stopped when it hit a police badge in Dwight’s pocket.

Dwight pops up and shoots two of the four, including a woman he shot with a bullet that first traveled through the head of the dead cop. A well placed grenade explodes, sending the car and Dwight into the tar pit. Some of the Irish escape with the cop head they plan to sell to get a war started among the cops, mob, and whores.

If not for Miho, sweet, sweet Miho, Dwight would have drowned in the pits. She rescues him after having killed the other Irish, except one is alive to be interrogated. Dwight gets the right info, stabs the guy well and good, and, in Miho’s car, they tool down the road.

Collision ahead. Dwight and Miho need that cop’s head to prevent war in Old Town. Miho t-bones the car carrying it and two Irish goons. Upon impact, Dwight flies through the windshield like it’s paper mache, nearly snatching the now-flying head.

Once all the combatants are on the street, Miho pops out from behind her car to throw blade at an Irish guy that slices off the top half of hi cranium. The other guy calls her a stupid slag, surely the insult of the movie, and throws another grenade as he escapes into the sewer with the head.

Dwight follows him and is blown back by another grenade, this time remote controlled. The Irish sapper, see, explains his love of bombs. Once you’ve blown up a pub and seen the little body parts fly away, he says, “a little bang-bang’s never going to match the sight of that.”

He’s got plenty more grenades wrapped around his waist, and he’s eager to use them on Dwight. “Never give an Irishman good cause for revenge.” Another piece of advice: don’t give a ninja a chance to sneak up on you. That’s what Miho does. She drives a sword through his back. He feels it, because she wants him to.

Sidekicks (4/8)

Gail (Rosario Dawson) is the only good person given enough screen time to make sidekick status. Dressed in leather dominatrix gear, Gail runs Old Town with a lead fist.

We first meet Gail when Dwight follows Jackie Boy into Old Town. The ladies are leading the undercover cop into a trap that will end in his death. Dwight smells something fishy; Gail smells only blood. And as Old Town is her town, that’s what she gets.

Gail doesn’t lose her cool when they discover Jackie’s police status. She locks down all talk of the murders. Dwight makes some demands and slaps Gail, but that’s the kind of thing that turns her on. It’s clear that she and Dwight have a past, because he slapped her and she didn’t kill him.

Later, Gail is captured by the golden-eyed Manute, who works for some crime lord or something, I don’t know, it’s not that clear. Manute ties Gail to a chair to extract information. But Gail likes that kind of shit.

When Manute brings in Becky, the woman who betrayed Gail and all the whores under her care, Gail, tied to the chair, bites a whole in Becky’s neck. Pretty boss shit.

The Valkyrie at Dwight’s side, Gail is exchanged for Jackie Boy’s head, the only remaining evidence of his death. Manute hands over Gail. Dwight tosses the head (still talking to Dwight), its mouth duct taped shut. Duct taped to conceal a remote grenade.

Dwight presses a button, detonating the bomb, knocking the gleam out of Manute’s eye. From the alley rooftops, the rest of the hookers of Old Town lay waste to the men accosting them. The sky is red for the Big Fat Kill.

Silent but deadly Miho
Silent but deadly Miho. She’ll kill you five times before you hit the ground (TM The Simpsons).

Shoutout to Devon Aoki for playing the silent assassin Miho. She was the most skilled killer in the film. So focused on killing was she, that she was not allowed to speak.

Henchmen (2/8)

Elijah Wood plays a creepy serial killer who eats his victims and mounts their heads. They’re all women, because men like that always kill women.

Few actors can pull off creepy mute serial killers better than Wood. Guy was born to play creeps. It’s a wonder he slogged through 12 hours as Frodo without me cringing from his performance.

Kevin, Wood’s character’s name, is the man who murders Goldie, an act that set off Marv. Kevin is a sneaky SOB. After Marv follows his trail to a farm, Kevin sneaks up on Marv. He’s the only person able to harm the human tank. Kevin uses his claw-shaped fingernails to slash Marv’s face and arm, and his roundhouse kicks quickly subdue Marv.

Later Kevin is caught by Marv, and treated to brutality that bemuses Kevin. Marv cuts off all Kevin’s limbs and leaves him to be eaten by his own dog. Kevin smirks. He never screams, even when Marv saws off his head. Elijah Wood=supercreep.

Rutger Hauer plays Elijah Wood’s enabler, Cardinal Roark. The cardinal is apparently the most powerful man in Sin City, the one who got his brother a job as a senator.

Roark is offered the severed head of Kevin, the serial cannibal he protected. He mourns Kevin, saying he had “the voice of an angel.” Ready, perhaps eager, for the torture coming from Marv, Roark kisses Kevin’s head.

Stunts (2/6)

Sin City is not a case in stunt work. The heroes and villains possess superhuman abilities. Marv is first among equals in this sense. He’s riddled with bullets in one scene, and that’s enough to put him in the hospital. He leaps feet-first through the windshield of a moving car. That fazes him not an ounce. The only guy harms him is Kevin with his fingernails/claws. Marv is impervious to metal, but not keratin.

Dwight, wearing Chuck Taylors, leaps off of Shellie’s balcony and lands on the ground–20 stories below. No problem. A grenade explodes about two inches from Dwight, and he survives without a scratch. Miho practically flies through the air with her swords like a helicopter.

Point is, stunt work is eschewed for stylistic violence. Fighting and action are not meant to excite the viewer, instead they’re used as obstacles for characters to overcome.

Climax (4/6)

By virtue of being the first and last story, Hartigan’s tale comprises the climax.

Tortured and imprisoned for eight years, Hartigan confesses to all the crimes of Senator Roark’s icky, yellow son. He’s let out and immediately searches for Nancy.

The trail leads to Kadie’s, where Hartigan spots her dancing for Marv and company, describing her as having “filled out.” Hartigan eyes the yellow bastard when it hits him, they used him as bait to find Nancy. hartigan turns tail to flee. “Don’t recognize me,” he internally begs Nancy.

Nancy immediately recognizes him, leaping off the stage to kiss her savior. They flee to a hotel to escape the yellow bastard, whose blood “smells even worse than he does.”

Of course they make out. She’s got a daddy fetish and Hartigan, despite calling Nancy the “daughter I never had,” hasn’t seen a woman in eight years. He pulls away long enough to take a cold shower.

The Yellow Bastard cuts that shower short and in no time has Hartigan strung up by a noose in the hotel room. Old Yeller kicks away the table supporting Hartigan, but the cop with nothing to lose escapes anyway.

Hartigan visits the Roark family farm, serial killer central. Kevin is there, sitting out this storyline. Hartigan’s angina kicks in again. That doesn’t prevent him from killing two guards.

Yellow’s got Nancy tied up in the family barn. He whips her, but she stays mum, except when she taunts him. Yellow was forced into dozens of plastic surgeries, and he’s grown a paunch, among other changes.

Hartigan charges toward the barn, but two more cops shoot him in the arm from behind. This is the second time this has happened to Hartigan in as many attempts to save Nancy from the Yellow Bastard.

Hartigan kills these cops and ends up in the barn, facing down his yellow nemesis. The Bastard taunts Hartigan again, asking him how he’ll lift that cannon of his. This time, Hartigan can’t lift it.

So he tries another tactic: playing dead. He fakes an angina attack. That draws The Bastard close, close enough to stab in the gut. Hartigan drives his nemesis to the ground. He grabs The Bastard’s new, reconstituted penis and tears it from him, finishing him off by caving his face in with fists. Nancy watches lovingly.

Nancy, with not a drop of blood on her white neglige, leads Hartigan away. It’s every cop’s fantasy to save a little girl who turns into an obsessive Jessica Alba.

Hartigan's radioactive blood and spotless Nancy
Hartigan’s radioactive blood and spotless Nancy

Nancy drives away, leaving Hartigan to think about the future. He envisions Roark taking revenge on him through Nancy. Realizing that Nancy will never be safe from the Roark family as long as Hartigan lives, the cop with angina points a gun at his forehead. “I love you, Nancy.” He pulls the trigger.

Jokes (2/4)

Subtly, comedy helps Sin City make its mark. A tribute to film noir that saturated theaters in the 1930s and ’40s, Sin City is still based on a comic book.

There is lightness to the characters and scenes in this film missing from its sequel. Cars don’t drive on the road, they zoom on it and soar over dips. Cartoonish, this style ever so slightly lampoons the grit of the old films to which it pays homage.

How else to explain Marv referring to his fists as “my mitts”? How else to explain that a neo Nazi, a guy with a swastika tattooed on his forehead, asks for people to call him a doctor because an arrow sticks out of his torso. When the Nazi is cracking jokes, you know the movie isn’t taking itself too seriously.

Jackie Boy’s corpse talks to Dwight, complete with the gun part protruding from his forehead. There’s also a goon who uses a lot of Latin-based words. Few characters have pulled the double duty of self-ridicule and supporting the use of Germanic words like that guy does.

Life in Sin City is brutal, nasty, and short. Light comedy dilutes that gritty edge.

Setting (3/4)

What a world Basin City is. What a colorless, besotted world. Sin City portrays the wretched scum that populate the poorest and richest sectors of the city’s life. The down and out are at war with the VIPs. Where is the middle class? Not here.

Kadie’s is a saloon with strippers and thugs watching them. A senator’s farm houses the mute cannibal who smiles as he’s devoured by his own dog. Old Town is a place for prostitutes where they control the law.

Sin City, in essence, is Hell. Its residents just don’t know it yet.

Commentary (0/2)

Frank Miller wrote the Sin City comics while he lived in New York City at a time when residents feared the city would disintegrate into a hellhole. He’s not a fan of cities in general, and Sin City is proof.

Senator Roark, the most powerful man in town and its most corrupt, believes that real power comes, not from guns, but from lies. The best liar is the most powerful. All Donald Trump voters would speak this bromide like gospel.

In Sin City, though, it’s true. Roark’s brother is a cardinal, one who nurtures a serial killer. The Senator nurtures his child raping son. Family values.

The good suffer greatly in Sin City. Marv rampages through the city, killing its second-worst murderer (Kevin, second to the yellow bastard by body count only), and gets the electric chair for it.

Hartigan, the last decent cop in town, spends eight years in solitary until he confesses to the younger Roark’s crimes. To defeat Senator Roark and save Nancy, in the end, Hartigan has to kill himself.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

In Sin City, men and woman have two choices. Men: kill or be killed, sometimes kill AND be killed. Women: fuck or get fucked, sometimes fuck AND get fucked.

The ladies on society’s bottom rung have carved out a stronghold for themselves. They have a truce with the cops, who will leave them alone if the ladies self-police Old Town.

And they do. The prostitutes of Old Town are Sin City’s most fearsome warriors. Organized, armed, loyal, the hookers keep to their own and suffer no fools.

And they are dressed to impress. Fishnets are the blue denim of Old Town. Also enormous earrings of crosses and birds and other pretty things. It’s a wonder they can move as well as they do, but they are practiced.

I didn’t find this offensive in the context of the movie, where everyone sucks in some manner, but I wanted to discuss it and crammed it in here.

Others

  • Dwight is hardcore enough to smoke while covered in tar.

Summary (34/68): 50%

Sin City is a film about the absolute depths of urban decay. Start with New York in the 1970s and decline from there. That’s how you get to Sin City.

Despite the city’s bleakness, the movie exudes an ever-so-slight lighthearted atmosphere. Maybe it’s the black-and-white style, maybe it’s the extremely sexualized female outfits, maybe it’s Clive Owen’s foppishness, maybe it’s Elijah Wood doing flying roundhouse kicks in Chuck Taylors and Mr. Rogers-like sweaters, maybe it’s Mickey Rourke in makeup that resembles an angry hawk, maybe it’s all these things.