Paying a Visit to Sin City

I don’t normally do recaps of my reading choices (well, other than giving the occasional Mil Millington plug). I can claim a certain above-average knowledge base in the area of movies, which (I like to believe) gives me at least some credibility when it comes to critiques thereof. But while I may be slightly more literate than the typical American, I am fully aware that given the cultural intelligence level of that typical American, that’s really not saying a whole hell of a lot. And since this readership also skews well above that abysmal level, I figure I’m usually better off just leaving the literary critiques to more qualified commentators.

In terms of comic books as reading choices, my literacy level rises a bit higher, but again, I can’t hope to compete with the ’net community at large. Still, I suppose I can rationalize this recommendation in that the book in question is currently being made into a movie. The work is Frank Miller’s Sin City, and the movie incarnation is most directly the result of an unusual “marketing” effort by (first-chair) director Robert Rodriguez.

Miller (whose epic Dark Knight Returns was entirely responsible for the Batman revival of the 1980s, culminating with Tim Burton’s movie version) had long said that after his disastrous experiences in Hollywood with RoboCop 2 and 3, he wouldn’t be having anything to do with movies in the foreseeable future (although in what may be a nice bit of turnaround, Miller’s cannibalized original script for RoboCop 2 has become a comic book). In fact, at a signing event I personally asked him about the prospects of Sin City making it to the big screen, and he told me quite plainly that it was going to stay a comic book; he had no desire to see some hotshot director or bottom-line-obsessed producer swoop in, take his work, and impose so much of an individual “vision” on it that it no longer resembled the original.

Knowing that Miller wasn’t likely to change his mind with a traditional “pitch,” no matter how eloquent, Rodriguez decided to show, rather than tell. He went ahead and shot what would be the first two minutes of the movie — a pre-credits teaser — with Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton as an assassin and his intended victim. He presented this “test footage” to Miller: If he liked it, they’d go ahead with the rest; if not, then he’d have one hell of a souvenir to show to friends at parties. Obviously, as evidenced by the fact that they are making the movie, Miller was singularly impressed.

But what is even more surprising is that Rodriguez insisted that this was Miller’s movie, and not his (or at least not exclusively his). In addition to referring to the project by the full name Frank Miller’s Sin City (reminiscent of Coppola’s insistence on Mario Puzo’s The Godfather), the two are co-directing the project. So determined was Rodriguez that Miller be given co-director standing that he was forced to renounce his membership in the Director’s Guild, which forbade the designation. (Oh, and they’re also receiving “special guest director” assistance from another little non-DGA member you may have heard of; guy by the name of Quentin Tarantino.)

They’re going out of their way to stay as close to Miller’s distinctive black-and-white (with occasional splashes of color) style as possible: Everything’s being shot against greenscreen, with sets recreated digitally to most closely retain Miller’s not-quite-reality style. Actors are being outfitted with prosthetics to make them look as much like their comic counterparts as possible. I’ve not seen the fabled “pitch footage” (which was shown publicly for the first time this past weekend), but what I have seen (an Entertainment Tonight blurb available here) shows a couple of shots straight out of the books. It remains to be seen whether this strict interpretation will actually work, but I am seriously excited about the prospect of finding out.

Of course, there’s no way to adapt all of the Sin City books into one movie, so they’ve chosen to focus on just three of the most popular tales, telling them in anthology format, à la Pulp Fiction (a particularly apt comparison). All three of the chosen tales share characters and environments, and even overlap in time a bit; the stories may end up being intercut to flow chronologically, but Rodriguez has said he’s shooting every scene from the comics (that is to say, those comics they’re adapting this time around), so as to include individually watchable, uncut versions of the individual stories on the DVD. That Yellow Bastard tells the story of John Hartigan, a detective on the verge of retirement forced to take the rap for a terrible crime in order to protect the very victim he saved. The Big Fat Kill focuses on Dwight McCarthy, a former photographer driven to cover up a murder that threatens to instigate an all-out street war. (A Dame to Kill For, which might be termed Dwight’s “origin story,” was originally considered but deemed too extensive to include.) And, of course, the original Sin City tale (renamed The Hard Goodbye for the movie’s purposes) introduces us to Marv, the well-intentioned but relentless killing machine, bent on avenging the death of a beautiful woman killed while lying in bed beside him.

The cast has been chosen with serious care to the character qualities of the original book, with Bruce Willis as Hartigan, Clive Owen as Dwight, and a beefed-up Mickey Rourke as the iconic Marv (featured in one of the film’s teaser posters here). Supporting turns — and there are a lot of them — are put in by (just for starters) Rosario Dawson as Gail, de facto leader of Sin City’s prostitute-ruled “Old Town”; Benicio Del Toro as the arrogant, brutalizing “Iron Jack” Rafferty; Jessica Alba as Nancy, an exotic dancer and the only one who believes in Hartigan’s innocence; Devon Aoki as the deceptively efficient killer Miho; Michael Clarke Duncan as Manute, a monstrous “bodyguard” more than happy to include murder in his duties; Elijah Wood as Kevin, an irredeemable psychotic protected by the powers that be; Nick Stahl as Junior, the deviant and predatory son of a well-connected Senator; and Jaime King as Goldie, the object of Marv’s all-consuming quest for vengeance. (A few more glimpses of some of the promotional posters — featuring King, Alba, and Dawson — are available here, though they’re just snapshots.)

As for the books themselves, I just finished rereading them over the weekend. All of them (between this and Star Wars, it seems to have been a weekend for revisiting complete collections). The other books in the collection are Booze, Broads, & Bullets (an anthology of short stories), Family Values (a further adventure of Dwight and his “Old Town” compatriots), and Hell and Back, which introduces the brooding artist (and trained killer) Wallace as he works to unravel a vast criminal conspiracy. Plenty of fodder for a sequel (if the first film works, of course). Or, as Rodriguez has suggested, a straight-to-DVD version of all of the Sin City stories.

For those of you unfamiliar with the books, read them immediately. Of course, that’s only if you’re not particularly squeamish. If the abbreviated character bios and story outlines I laid out above didn’t tip you onto the kind of subject matter we’re talking about, let me be more explicit: Sin City is one of the most singularly violent pieces of comic creation in recent memory, not to mention containing plenty of nudity and sexual content. Most definitely not for the kiddies; if they really stick to a strict interpretation, they’ll be venturing well into NC-17 territory. But in reality, I suspect that for simple viability, they’ll keep it within R-rating levels (though Jessica Alba’s no-nudity policy is already frustrating the fanboy contingent, and I somehow doubt it’s purely for “artistic purity” reasons).

Miller takes the hard-boiled detective stories of film noir and both updates them for modern sensibilities and translates them brilliantly to the comic book arena. His stark black-and-white style completely solidifies the illusion that this is a world of shadow — both literally and figuratively. (It’s especially interesting to see this style evolve over the course of the first tale, as Miller becomes more and more confident in his “vision” — either that or as the series’ success allows him to afford larger quantities of ink.)

A movie-to-comic-book “adaptation” will (obviously) be completely unnecessary (and given their tight turnaround, they’re usually crap anyway), but I’m hopeful that Miller will release a new Sin City story to coincide with the movie’s release. He’s said there will be more stories coming; perhaps we’ll finally see the long-awaited Sin City 1940 tale he’s mentioned in the past. It’s been far too long since I was able to pay a (new) visit to Sin City.

If not, I’ll just have to satisfy myself with the movie. But even there, the most depressing thing is that I have to wait another year to see whether the movie does the books justice. Though, according to one story, that pitch footage (adapted from the short story “The Customer Is Always Right”) will be available for download within the next couple of weeks. Time enough, I suppose, for another reading...


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