As their titles suggest, comics (as in newspaper comic strips) and later comic books were once solely humorous works of fiction designed to amuse kids and some adults along the way. When action was finally added to the mix, such illustrated works were about good vs. evil and always had the heroes defeating or banishing the villains.
Time passed by and such tales turned darker, so much so that in 1954 the Comics Code Authority was formed in response to complaints about the levels of violence and immorality in comics. Many such darker works then went underground, while the growing social unrest of the '60s and '70s made even mainstream works tackle all sorts of once taboo subjects and even had the heroes occasionally losing.
That trend continued over the decades, eventually evolving into what's become known as "graphic novels" featuring dark tales where good didn't always prevail and the dark and seedy underbelly of life dominated. And one of the most noteworthy purveyors of such material has been Frank Miller who worked on the darker view of Batman in "The Dark Knight Returns" and created notable characters such as Elektra.
In 1991, he began work on his tales of Sin City, a pulpy, noir style epic about the grim, inner-city life populated with unsavory characters and their equally nasty deeds. The work was an acclaimed hit and now arrives on the big screen as "Frank Miller's Sin City." A darker and more violent kissing cousin to "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," this effort was also filmed in front of a blue screen with Miller's signature artistic visuals added in during post production to make this a living and breathing cinematic comic book.
If films were judged solely on style and artistic merit, this offering would win hands down. Visually handsome if gritty and heavily detailed, the film is presented mostly in high contrast, black and white, with some vibrant colors occasionally showing up (lipstick, eyes, some attire, and lots of blood when it's not presented in milky white or infected yellow) to add some contrast. The effect is visually hypnotic as you simply can't take your eyes of the screen (although the squeamish may have to look away or at least peer through their fingers due to the ultra violence that's on display here).
Although the majority of it's directed by Robert Rodriguez, the film actually has three credited "directors." Beyond the filmmaker responsible for the "Spy Kids" films as well as more violent offerings such as "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" and "From Dusk Till Dawn," Miller gets credit for his visuals (reportedly leading to Rodriguez quitting the Directors Guild over a credits dispute with them), and Quentin Tarantino shows up as a "special guest director."
Some viewers may end up walking out thinking the latter filmmaker should have gotten more of the lion's share of the work. That's because while there may be those mesmerizing visuals and a plethora of style that will wow many, the story -- or stories to be more accurate -- ends up getting a bit repetitive.
With Miller adapting his own work, the film consists of three main stories along with a short prologue and epilogue that tie everything together thematically and stylistically. They're all inner-related to one degree or another, and the various tales may take place in the same locale and briefly intersect. But the effect isn't as much temporal fun as Tarantino's displayed with his previous efforts (including the "Kill Bill" films and especially "Pulp Fiction").
The first two -- featuring Bruce Willis ("Hostage," the "Die Hard" films) as a cop with a bad ticker and a need to catch a pedophile and Mickey Rourke ("Man on Fire," "Angel Heart") as a big lug who wants revenge on those who killed a compassionate hooker -- certainly pique our interest as we try to figure out where each story is going and how they connect to those that precede or follow them.
For a while, that and the arresting visuals make the film a blast to watch. That is, as long as you don't mind the over-the-top violence and noir-style, voice over narration that's so purposefully thick that it would choke any pulp novel narrator. It's all exaggerated, of course, for laughs and a definite hip coolness.
Yet, after a while, we begin to realize all of that -- the endless voice-overs, the violence, the visuals, edgy mood and atmosphere, etc. -- is present to establish just and only that. It's another example of style over substance or at least the latter ending up not being as substantial as it initially appears it's going to be. Had the various characters and storylines eventually come together in more of a satisfactory fashion (as occurred in "Pulp Fiction"), the abundance of style would have seemed like icing on the cake. Instead, it's a substitute for the cake and after a while, the richness eventually causes one to become full and/or fed up with what are essentially empty calories.
Of the three stories, my favorite was the one featuring Rourke as a nearly indestructible block of a man who'd put the Energizer Bunny and those old Timex watches to shame (in terms of taking a licking and just going and going).
While we never really learn much about him or his vendetta, the tale's done to such an exaggerated extreme -- including the femme fatale "dame" played by Jamie King ("White Chicks," "Pearl Harbor") and a weird, cannibalistic villain portrayed by Elijah Wood (the "Lord of the Rings" films) -- that you can't help but find it rather entertaining in an over the top, violent way. That is, for a tale that features, among scads of impolite things, an anti-hero dragging a low-life's head along the street -- out of the car, as the big lug drives and holds the other guy there.
The first tale comes in two parts -- the first being with Willis' cop character dealing with that pedophile who's after a young girl, and the second occurring years later when she's grown up into the shapely exotic dancer embodied -- and then some -- by Jessica Alba ("Honey," TV's "Dark Angel").
The third story is the least satisfying, despite featuring the likes of Clive Owen ("Closer," "King Arthur"), Benicio Del Toro ("21 Grams," "Traffic"), Michael Clark Duncan ("Daredevil," "The Green Mile"), Brittany Murphy ("Little Black Book," "Uptown Girls"), Rosario Dawson ("Alexander," "The Rundown") and Devon Aoki ("D.E.B.S." "2 Fast 2 Furious") as a character seemingly lifted straight out of those "Kill Bill" films due to her proficiency with a samurai sword. Unfortunately, its tale is nowhere as interesting as those found in Tarantino's works, and by the time it eventually rolls around, we've already recognized the style over substance problem.
That said, I still have to give the film a passing grade despite that very issue, especially since I liked more of it than I disliked. Had the stories and their various characters -- individually and then collectively -- been stronger, this could have been a classic pulp fiction/film noir offering. While it ultimately ends up being about less than it initially appears, the visually impressive "Frank Miller's Sin City" nevertheless works well enough to warrant a look.