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Screens Scintillating city 

It sparks, it flashes, it sizzles, but 'Sin City' doesn't land the punch

click to enlarge screens-sincity1_330jpg
"Ashton Kutcher, you're a dead man," warns Bruce Willis.

If you've seen the trailers, you probably understand why fanboys nationwide are frothing at the mouth to see Robert Rodriguez' adaptation of the Sin City graphic novels. What's on view there looks like no other movie around. It was made with the co-writing and co-directing help of series creator Frank Miller (Rodriguez made a show of resigning from the Directors' Guild of America when they balked at letting the cartoonist share that credit); and the cast sports actors you'd like to see in a comic book, some of whom - Mickey Rourke, for example, as the big lug Marv - have undergone thorough sculpting at the hands of makeup techs to look like the drawings they're meant to embody. If only the plastic surgeons who have mended Rourke's boxing wounds over the years were so talented.

The good news is that, in almost every way, Sin City looks exactly as it should. Shot in gleaming black-and-white with carefully chosen bursts of color - a woman's red lips or blonde curls, eyes that flare up green on demand - it is true to the comic's black-and-white format while borrowing a cue from the series' color-dabbed covers. Using the easy manipulation afforded by digital photography, the filmmakers mimic other effects from the page, like turning characters into all-white silhouettes and making individual droplets of rain stand out like a hail of slow-motion gunfire. This faithfulness gets them into trouble once or twice, as when pure-white blood oozing from wounds looks like birdshit.

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Right: Sin City's Brittany Murphy, also no fan of Kutcher.

The cast is visually ideal as well, from Marv's makeup job to the way Rodriguez and Elijah Wood are able to replicate exactly the perversely serene expression on the face of a character as his sick plans come to a violent end. The women - floosies to a one; even the lawyer spends most of her camera time strutting around topless - look just as they do in Miller's world of big hair and big breasts.

If the dialogue and its delivery bring to mind a Saturday Night Live parody of film noir, that's not entirely inappropriate, either. In the '80s, Frank Miller did for Batman what Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven did for the Western and his own screen persona. He took an icon of machismo and allowed all its inherent ridiculousness to fester; he stretched things to the point of ugly satire and managed still to make readers care about the unfolding drama. Later, Miller's Sin City pushed things farther: The dialogue and attitudes of hard-boiled crime fiction were taken so far that they could be enjoyed only as artifice; if you really identified with Miller's characters, you probably weren't ready mentally for the wave of "adult comics" that Miller helped popularize.

So fans will smile and nod when Sin City's broads and bullies toss around epithets, deliver trite monologues, or revel in sadism. Some will call their appreciation ironic and some won't, but it's all true to the source.

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Clive Owen and Benicio Del Toro — opinions of Ashton Kutcher currently unknown.

The way in which Rodriguez' film fails its inspiration is that, for all its looks, it feels as flimsy as the brittle pages of a weathered Mickey Spillane novel. Miller created more heat with India Ink than Rodriguez does with all his high-tech tools, and disappointments are everywhere: The sex scene assembled out of tepid tableaux; the cars that look wonderful in park but, when driving, reveal themselves to be video-game objects; the odd lack of sensory punch in the tale's many, many scenes of violence.

One culprit in that last instance: The filmmakers understandably employ acres of voiceover narration. A staple of hardboiled fiction and a prime element in Miller's work, voiceover is obligatory. But using this much in a movie - to the point that it's a shock when characters speak with their lips moving - creates an invisible wall between us and the action. Bullets never sound as loud as they should; punches don't sting. The film's faithfulness to the comic is wonderful, but this is one area in which Rodriguez should have conceded that a new medium demanded a bit of reworking, especially when the comic's main attraction is its eagerness to provide unadulterated, conscience-free kicks.

Sin City

Dir. Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, Quentin Tarantino ("special guest director"); writ. Miller, Rodriguez; feat. Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Elijah Wood, Bruce Willis, Benicio Del Toro, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Brittany Murphy, Jaime King, Michael Madsen (R)
Curious readers will note the "special guest director" credit for Rodriguez pal Quentin Tarantino. The filmmaker showed up for a day of shooting during the Clive Owen/Benicio Del Toro episode, and that should be enough information for attentive viewers to identify his contributions. He directed the scene in which Owen's fierce, fearless character briefly develops something resembling human fears.

The movie does pick up as it goes along. At the start, a series of quick vignettes may have viewers worrying they'll never get interested in one of this naked city's stories before it's over; toward the end, we return to one we think was over, and the drama takes hold a bit. That doesn't happen so early that viewers won't have time to make comparisons to the beautiful but soulless Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which also put too much stock in computers. But it does offer a bone or two to the non-Miller-fans who bought their Sin City tickets hoping that a flick so lovely could make them care what happens in it.

By John DeFore

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