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
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
books
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
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.

    Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

    Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

    Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities