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.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?