Sin City (18)

Comic strip of cruelty

There is a sequence about three-quarters of the way through Sin City that could stand as a perfect distillation of its style. A laconic urban toughnut named Dwight (Clive Owen) is driving through the night and holding a desultory conversation with a man in the passenger seat. What's unusual about this is not just the digitised imagery that mimics the old-fashioned effect of the background moving rather than the car; it's that Dwight's interlocutor has been mortally skewered through the head with a knife some minutes previously. Corpses that talk? Welcome to The Night of the Ad-libbing Dead.

There is a sequence about three-quarters of the way through Sin City that could stand as a perfect distillation of its style. A laconic urban toughnut named Dwight (Clive Owen) is driving through the night and holding a desultory conversation with a man in the passenger seat. What's unusual about this is not just the digitised imagery that mimics the old-fashioned effect of the background moving rather than the car; it's that Dwight's interlocutor has been mortally skewered through the head with a knife some minutes previously. Corpses that talk? Welcome to The Night of the Ad-libbing Dead.

That scene, you may not be surprised to hear, is the work of "special guest director" Quentin Tarantino, never a man to let a minor drawback like being dead interrupt the flow of his trademark "talkiness". The main body of the movie is co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, on whose graphic novels Sin City is based, and if this duo haven't quite got anything to rival Tarantino's outlandish contribution, they match him pound for pound in delivering a grisly array of high-tar, blood-spattered, steel-tipped violence.

What may surprise is just how ravishing it is to look at. This city is a gorgeous black-and-white world of shadows and silhouettes, a nocturne shot through with flashes of red - a car's tail-light, a woman's dress, a gunshot wound and the gore that spills from it. Imagine Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles twisted into a permanent midnight peopled with hoods, whores, hit men and the odd cannibalistic killer. Philip Marlowe, you feel, wouldn't know where to start.

The influence of Tarantino, however, extends beyond the inclusion of his bespoke segment. He's there in the emulation of Pulp Fiction's structure - an interwoven triptych of stories - in the comic-book brio, and in the unheralded revival of a burnt-out career. Pulp Fiction gave the kiss of life to John Travolta's career. Sin City may do the same, one hopes, for Mickey Rourke, whose last decent performance belongs in another lifetime (it was as the IRA killer in the otherwise preposterous A Prayer for the Dying of 1987).

Rourke plays Marv, a hulking brute who looks like the love-child of Dolph Lundgren and a Minotaur. Marv is sweet on a call girl named Goldie (Jaime King), and when she is murdered he goes out looking for revenge. "I'll die laughing if I know I've done this one thing right," he says, breaking through steel bars and bashing heads on his way to a showdown with former hobbit Elijah Wood, playing a creature whose Harry Potter spectacles belie a temperament closer to Hannibal Lecter.

Vengeance is the keynote of the other two stories. Bruce Willis plays an honest cop with a dicky ticker who saves an 11-year-old girl from a serial rapist (Nick Stahl). Years later, the girl (now grown into the lovely Jessica Alba) will try to thank him, while the rapist (now transformed into the much less lovely "Yellow Bastard") will try to get his own back.

The third segment features Clive Owen as a guy who turns Galahad after his girlfriend (Brittany Murphy) and various ladies of the night are menaced by the thuggish Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro). The heroic motivation to protect women unites all three main characters, as does their gruff Forties-style voiceover, a hard-boiled staccato that occasionally risks a note of Chandleresque humour: "He was as expert as a palsy victim performing surgery with a pipe wrench." The rest of the time, however, the dialogue sounds as though it were written for - and possibly by - a 14-year-old boy.

This, to be honest, is the movie's target audience, and for all the gallantry of spirit on show, the quickfire choppiness of the comic strip dictates its rhythm. Sin City is a revenge fantasy wherein torture and killing have been pushed to Tarantinoid limits of acceptability, and nobody seems to care whether the blood runs red or even, on occasion, white. You may flinch from the sight of a man hung out of a speeding car so that his face scrapes along the road, but you can bet there will be a fair bit of cackling among the popcorn-munchers.

The film's perspective on women is hardly more sophisticated than the violence. Once, we had damsels in distress. Then we had the "grrrl power" of Carrie-Anne Moss in The Matrix films and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. Now, it's nubile young honeys in bondage gear selling themselves on the street. Some progress! Carla Gugino distinguishes herself by being the one woman in the cast who is over 25 and by playing a character who has a vaguely respectable job. But even as a parole officer to Marv, she still has to walk around with her top off. Now, it's no great hardship to watch a half-naked Gugino, or even a skimpily clad Alba dancing around a pole. Nevertheless, you don't have to be especially high-minded to wonder why it is that all of the women in Sin City are seen to be, without exception, "available".

As an exercise in throwback noir, this movie is not hard to admire, and in Rourke's granitic performance there is something even to enjoy. Rodriguez and Miller have raised the bar on the character of the implacable urban avenger, and have secured Tarantino's imprimatur in the process. Yet what a negligible achievement it feels, to find new levels of comic cool in the prospect of violent death.

Time was when movie-makers, even laws-unto- themselves such as Sam Peckinpah, could be trusted to examine the consequences of living every moment in mortal danger: violence meant something more to them than simple connoisseurship. "Yeesh," mutters Owen as he surveys another atrocity. That's about as complicated a reaction as you'll hear in this fiesta of cruelty.

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