R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Sin City, Part 3

The first time I ever read a Sin City comic, it was under extreme protest. At the time, I was in 11th Grade and I was very green as far as comics went. Oh sure, I’d read my share of Superman issues over my life, as well as other single issue here and there of Spawn and other titles, but I wasn’t yet a serious fan of the genre. Then for some reason I picked up an issue of Kingdom Come, and that was it. Next thing I know, a whole new world of entertainment, fueled partially by my childhood nostalgia for the Man of Steel and Batman, had opened up for me.

Before I knew it, I was knee deep in comics, with a friend of mine letting me borrow a leather-bound edition of the Complete Frank Miller Batman, containing both The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One (I’d later have to hold this book for ransom as the bum borrowed a CD of mine and wouldn’t get around to returning it). I was reading several titles and graphic novels, including Matt Wagner’s Grendel and Mike Allred’s Madman, but when my buddy Robert Kirkman handed me the first Sin City trade paperback, I was highly skeptical.

There were no superheroes in tights or anyone with magic powers. The book was in black and white and had all this nudity in it, which was a bit of a problem since I was reading it in class. While I was trying to get into comic books, this seemed like it was going too far, as if this would be a point of no return. That is exactly what it turned out to be.

The stories of Sin City unfurl as if they are part of our subconscious. The books are the very essence of Noir, and part of a legacy that started with Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. Its characters are such that they seem familiar to us, and yet they still manage to surprise us. Adding Miller’s visuals to the mix only serve to add to the Noir legacy, as they give you the chance to picture this world and really take it in.

Nearly 11 years after reading my first Sin City graphic novel, the books are still some of my favorite stories in the medium, which also accounts for my enthusiasm for the Sin City movie. My own collection is filled with every piece of Frank Miller’s world I could get my hands on, so if the film felt like it was a pale imitation or felt anything but genuine, I’d know it immediately. What happened was one of the most satisfying movie experiences I’ve ever had.

Frank Miller’s Sin City Starring Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, Benicio Del Toro, Nick Stahl, Jaime King, Rosario Dawson, and Devon Aoki. Directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez

I talked last week about how The Big Fat Kill was my least favorite of the Sin City books for various reasons, but how the film version was actually very satisfying and even more entertaining than its source material. With the next book to come out, That Yellow Bastard disappointment is not a feeling that I happened to feel at its conclusion. This was epic storytelling by Miller, spanning years as the story unfolds in front of you.

Another big reason for me loving the book has to do with its main character. John Hartigan may have had the rough look and hulking frame that Marv did from The Hard Goodbye, but instead of just being some big lug, Hartigan was a Sin City cop and maybe the only honest one on the force. I love that the character harkened not only to the police roles of hundreds of Noir novels and films, but is seemed as if Miller took a majority of the character from the most influential Police character of the last half century; Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. To me, Harry is the quintessential tough guy police character, standing up for justice, even if the system won’t let him. The difference with Harry and Hartigan is that Harry stretches the boundaries of the law because his superiors are wary of taking justice too far; with Hartigan he has to do what he does because it’s the only way he can get things done in a city bent on corruption.

In fact, whenever I pictured Hartigan being played in a movie, I always imagine Clint Eastwood and his friends, Smith and Wesson, coming along with him. Eastwood would be age perfect for the role, and would also have the perfect screen presence, but on the other hand, it’s hard to imagine Eastwood in a Comic Book movie. Then again, if you can’t get Harry Callahan in your movie, you might as well get the next best thing. You get his successor. You get John McClane.

That Yellow Bastard

On the DVD for Sin City, Frank Miller mentions on his commentary with Robert Rodriguez that he couldn’t believe that Bruce Willis would sign on to play Hartigan, calling him the “Humphrey Bogart of this generation”. He simply thought that Willis was too big a name to want to be in the movie, but I think this was a sign of both how much people really love Frank’s novels. After seeing Rodriguez’s test footage with Josh Hartnett, Willis not only immediately signed on, but also objected to any change in Hartigan’s dialogue, citing that he didn’t want any changes to the original character.

You can see how Willis completely immerses himself in this character too. This is John McClane in his twilight years, his mind and spirit willing, but his body ready to give out after so many years of wear and tear. He’s so driven that no one can really stop him when he puts his mind to something and you can see that instantly from his first appearance. While we don’t get the smartass wisecracks you would from a normal Bruce Willis adventure such as this, we instead get a man of complete action, as is Willis has fused McClane with Eastwood’s Harry Callahan.

Willis has been good in terrible movies before though, and without Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez behind the camera, this could have ended up another Hart’s War or Hostage. Then again, a few minutes into That Yellow Bastard you know you’re in good hands. Like Mickey Rourke and Clive Owen, Willis looks perfectly at home in these crazily drawn surroundings, and Miller and Rodriguez end up the perfect guiding hands with which to develop this world around him.

Being that this sequence is actually the first one you see after The Customer is Always Right, it’s able to establish the tone for most of the movie to come. We see the heavy use of green screen and to what extreme the film makers are willing to go in their depiction of violence. In the middle of it all too is Willis, acting for all he’s worth trying to get every note right as he plays a man that has been taken to his physical limit and just keeps going. Also, when you realize that Willis’ narration was put in, in postproduction then it makes his performance that much better, as he had to make due without the help of dialogue and still emote.

In true Noir fashion Hartigan comes onto the screen like lightning, determined to save a young girl’s life named Nancy Callahan, as he’s on the eve of his retirement. We get a sense that Hartigan is not loved amongst his contemporaries in his department, especially as he confronts his partner Bob (Michael Madsen), and accuses him of being in the pockets of the city’s corrupt officials. A shootout eventually erupts, which goes from one extreme to the other as total and brutal victory gives way to a bittersweet conclusion that would seem perfectly normal within this world.

I wonder what this would have felt like for the uninitiated that perhaps thought this was the end of this particular story. It feels like it would have been an interesting place to stop and for Miller, you wonder if he had even wanted to stop in this place originally. Brilliantly, Robert Rodriguez makes us wait for this story to conclude, and even though when he does finally finish the story That Yellow Bastard is still the shortest of the three major stories, it has perhaps the most personal emotional resonance and feels the most epic. By wading through the fury of The Hard Goodbye and the spectacle of The Big Fat Kill, we’ve almost forget about Hartigan’s saga by the time we get back to him. When we return we learn that the pieces are still in play and that Hartigan’s sacrifice has only delayed the proceedings. After 8 years of prison, Hartigan is released and his quest to find Nancy and protect her continues.

This is another point where Sin City is able to somehow work miracles. It is one thing to like a Bruce Willis performance; it’s another to like one by both Brittany Murphy and Jessica Alba in the same movie. To say that not only are neither of them bad, but Murphy is even quite good, while Alba (who infuriated me in Fantastic Four) is inoffensive and is quite capable of bringing out the scarred innocence of Nancy. Alba even manages to have a decent chemistry with Bruce Willis.

That Yellow Bastard may also have the best villains of the whole movie. Even though his screen time is limited, the role of Senator Roark is one that is charged with complete and utter evil. In the book, this character is a short and swarthy man and his face reminds me of a maniacal George Wendt, but I doubt that actor could portray the role with the correct amount of menace. In fact, could any actor ever display more menace than Powers Boothe? Rodriguez and Miller must have thought the same thing as Boothe is a powerhouse of malevolence onscreen and without doing anything more than talking; he’s able to simply scare the bejesus out of you.

Letting his evil take a physical manifestation is Nick Stahl as Junior, Senator Roark’s rapist offspring. After his initial encounter with Hartigan, he’s left an ugly mess of a man, all yellow and stinking like old garbage from the side effects of the treatments he’s undergone to restore his manhood. Greg Nicotero again does Oscar worthy work to make Stahl into this cartoonish, yet terrifying vision of evil, but its Nick Stahl’s inner demons that manifest in his face, showing you just how scary wickedness can be.

The final confrontation of these characters is an orgy of violence and debauchery. The ending is unforgiving and brutal and leaves a bloody trail of bodies. One character is beaten into liquid and unrecognizable flesh. The moment is just as awesome as it should be, and the conclusion of That Yellow Bastard leaves you shaken and beaten down.

A coda to the film featuring Josh Hartnett brings the film’s ending full circle, but it’s these last moments of Hartigan’s journey that really stay with you. The story is the perfect end to an amazing translation to some of my favorite works I’ve ever read in graphic novels. The movie is a step up for all involved and hopefully will represent a milestone in many of their careers. I know Rodriguez earned some very big cred from fans that were hungry to see something other than his Mariachi adventures, especially when he delivered on this scale. Comics have never been translated to the screen this perfectly and maybe never will again.

Well, I can finally put Sin City behind me now, but I’ll probably keep up with Robert Rodriguez’s adventures for the next few weeks. Grindhouse is right around the corner and I absolutely can’t wait.

Picture Credits: ecranlarge.com, impawards.com, photobucket.com