Sin City (18)

Black and white and dead all over
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The Independent Culture

Quentin Tarantino was supposedly the delinquent prodigy of Nineties US independent cinema, but by rights that title belongs to his associate Robert Rodriguez. It was Rodriguez who made his mark with a film that supposedly cost only $7,000 - 1993's El Mariachi - before turning himself into a prolific bargain-basement Spielberg, making spirited entertainments for trashy-minded adults (The Faculty) and children alike (Spy Kids). Rodriguez now runs his own mini-empire, Troublemaker Studios, and he's used it to make what must count as one of the landmarks of digital cinema. Sin City is adapted from the graphic novels by Frank Miller, who co-directs. Tarantino is along too for one scene, as "Special Guest Director", but make no mistake, he's very much an awed admirer here, hanging on Miller's and Rodriguez's gore-flecked coat-tails.

A portmanteau of blood-guts-and-passion stories in a pastiche film noir vein, Sin City is superficially comparable to Pulp Fiction - and features two Tarantino stars, Bruce Willis and Michael Madsen - but it goes far beyond it in the black ruthlessness of its vision. Basin City is a semi-futuristic, semi-retro urban jungle where hard men stalk the streets for vengeance, only for luscious-lipped femmes fatales to pout them towards perdition. It's an outrageously violent world where slashings, skewerings and decapitations happen at the drop of a trenchcoat. This is where the darkest crime fiction - Spillane, Ellroy, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly - meets Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher and suchlike Jacobean gorehounds.

The film is black and white, and so is its sexual representation. The women are all louche, cheesecake dreams - Rosario Dawson's dominatrix supreme, Jaime King's centrefold vamp, Jessica Alba's gooder-than-gold street angel. As for the men, they're all hyper-charged monsters of one sort or another: either indestructible hard cases (Clive Owen's impassioned tough, Willis's doomed, wind-beaten good cop), or out-and-out grotesques, such as the indestructible minotaur Marv (Mickey Rourke), or the leering, piss-coloured hobgoblin who is Willis's tormentor. Rourke steals the film, not least because he's so arrestingly hideous: layered with prosthetics, his face resembles an oversize carnival mask of Kirk Douglas, yet fleeting glimmers of Rourke's long-lost beauty are occasionally recognisable underneath. It may be cruel casting, but it's inspired. Sin City lets him redeem himself as a star, just as the murderous Marv is redeemed, and Rourke grabs the challenge with two gnarly fists.

The three stories - plus blackly sardonic bookends - are a little narratively baggy, the middle one losing its way as the noir/futurism mix gets out of hand, with a showdown between the Mob and Dawson's army of superheroine-like hookers. Verbally, though, the film is a treat: wall-to-wall Chandleresque voice-over, dialogue so hard-boiled you could eat it with salad cream.

But what makes Sin City indisputably brilliant is the look. Rodriguez - who shot and edited, as well as co-writing the music and supervising the visual effects - collaborates with Miller to recreate the black-and-white starkness of his original artwork, pumping it into three dimensions which often fold back into two. White silhouettes are framed against black, the shadow of Venetian blinds are carved out in the dark like a linocut, rain scars the image like scratches on old celluloid. The opener sets the scene: Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton in a city nightscape, their skin like silver, all monochrome except for Shelton's scarlet dress and a sudden flush of blue in her eyes.

The mix of black and white with occasional colour makes for a claustrophobic nocturnal world, at once hyper-real and flagrantly contrived, as if drawn directly on the screen. The most unnerving play is with the bloodletting, most often in copious splashes of white. The brutality is ghoulish, the grandest of Guignol, but it's heightened in a way that restores the literal meaning to the over-used term "comic-strip violence".

Sin City offers an extreme parody of movie violence - not for any moral purpose, simply to remind us that this film's real setting is hell itself.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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