by Ed Symkus

Watching movies like Sin City just make things so much easier for film critics. For instance, now there are only nine spots that still have to be filled for that year-end Top-10 list. Based on the mostly black and white series of graphic novels by Frank Miller, this is an over-the-top, action-packed, absolutely ferocious film about the denizens and visitors in a place called Basin City, or, for short, Sin City.

Like the comics, this is presented in stunningly stylized black and white, with small patches of color piercing their way through for just the right amount of dazzle. A red dress and matching lipstick open the film, fire and explosions are of an almost blinding yellow, pill bottles are that special color of brown that are only seen in pill bottles; if someone has reason to bleed, that blood is the brightest of red.

And there's lots of bleeding in this hellish town, as this is one of the most violent films to be seen in recent years. Violence that includes torture, cannibalism, decapitation, swords through the eye. Yet, in the hands of Robert Rodriguez, who early on pledged to capture what Frank Miller was doing in the books -- and totally succeeded -- the violence is so outrageous, so cartoonish, that it hardly ever offends. Much of it will be greeted by viewers with a gasp combined with a breathless laugh.

While atmosphere makes up the backbone of what's going on here -- the streets and buildings are dark and scary; it's either raining most of the time or snowing some of the time; the mood, look, and dialogue are 100 percent noir -- there's also plenty of storytelling, though none of it is what you what call linear.

There are actually three intertwining stories, all taken directly from those of Miller, who co-directed the film. A rooftop scenario with a man, a woman, and a big gun serves as an introduction, followed by the tale of Hartigan (Bruce Willis) a cop who's about to retire due to a diagnosis of angina but has one more kidnapping case to solved. Another is about a big bruiser called Marv (Mickey Rourke), who experiences a taste of heaven when he's brought to bed by a hooker named Goldie (Jaime King) but finds in the morning that she's been killed, sending him on a self-imposed mission of revenge. The final story is one of those classic two men-one woman tales of jealousy. The woman is a waitress named Shellie (Brittany Murphy), the men are Jack (Benicio Del Toro) and Dwight (Clive Owen). The question is, which of these guys is more dangerous? The answer is hard to figure out. They both share a similar penchant for threatening to dish out some of the film's violence.

Of the three stories, the one centering on Marv is the best and the longest. Because of the makeup on him -- a chin bigger than Leno's, scars that resemble deep tire treads -- it's near-impossible to recognize Mickey Rourke. And shot from low camera angles, he appears much taller than he really is. But his performance is of career-high caliber. You will fear him and feel for him, especially during scenes where he takes more bullets than Bonnie and Clyde and Tony Montana together, and still keeps forging ahead on his mission. Maybe even more so when he checks his list of killing tools -- saw, cuffs, razor wire, etc. -- and includes his hands, which he calls "my mitts."

If the makeup on his face isn't enough, wait till you see the big "X" of a scar on Willis' character -- one that's so prominent, though never explained, it literally glows in the dark when it's not hidden in the film's plentiful shadows.

The look of the film has its own astounding set of surprises. Like last year's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, there were no sets. The actors all worked on blank stages in front of a green screen, and the amazing city itself was later added in, a creation of computer magic.

This is not a film for everyone. Most of the female characters, who live in a seedy area called Old Town, are so tough that even the cops are afraid to come by. And no one wants to get on the bad side of deadly little Miho (Devon Aoki) or cross paths with slinky Gail (Rosario Dawson) when she's in a bad mood. The film also offers up some curiosity about when it's supposed to be taking place. Like Alan Rudolph's Trouble in Mind, there's a timelessness that makes it impossible to say if it's the 1940s or now. The strangest thing about it, though, is that even though it's ultra-violent, it's also loads of fun. And how often do you see those two phrases together?

Publication date: 03/31/05

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