Of all the hard-boiled crime writers who followed in the wake of Dashiell Hammett, the pulp master who fathered the form in the 1920s, the hardest-boiled was surely Mickey Spillane. Mike Hammer, the private eye Spillane introduced in his first book, “I, the Jury,” in 1947, wasn’t just another tough-guy urban romantic, a knight in corroded armor like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Hammer was a brute, just this side of a psychopath. Mayhem was his business, and justice, sneeringly meted out to the human scum among whom he moved, was whatever he decided it to be.
Spillane is the presiding influence in the series of “Sin City” comic books that Frank Miller began writing and drawing in the early 1990s — stories in which scantily clad women get smacked around and sometimes like it and a prolonged bloody beating is likely to be the least of a protagonist’s torments. Spillane’s pungent idiom (presenting a buxom barroom babe, for example, as “a tomato in a dress that was too tight a year ago”) echoes throughout the “Sin City” stories. One of Miller’s battered antiheroes, the block-headed Marv, even looks like Mickey Spillane (who actually played Mike Hammer in a 1963 film version of one of his novels).
What made the “Sin City” comics an instant sensation in the fanboy subculture was not just Miller’s mastery of the elements of the hard-boiled world — its relentless violence, barbed-wire dialogue and bleak emotional landscape — but his artistic depiction of it. His “Sin City” panels — bursting with thick, muscular black-and-white imagery, and raked with striations that suggested antique Japanese woodcuts — were a bold achievement in comic-book art. Three of these stories — “The Hard Goodbye,” “The Big Fat Kill” and “That Yellow Bastard” — are now the basis of a technically arresting movie by Robert Rodriquez (with Miller himself brought on board and credited as co-director). But the film’s central effect is to force us to confront the fundamental nature of what Miller’s comics pass off, in a more distanced and therefore more successful way, as kinky, retro-hip kicks. It’s not a pretty picture.
After a brief introductory sequence that’s essentially an homage to the famous final scene in Spillane’s “I, the Jury,” Rodriguez starts parading Miller’s three stories past us. These brutal tales all take place in grubby, corrupt Sin City, and they’re united mainly by the spectacular sadism with which they’re so enthusiastically infused. Bruce Willis plays an honest cop at the end of his career who’s determined to rescue a little girl from a vicious sex maniac (the reliably repellent Nick Stahl). Mickey Rourke, walled off behind a mask of prosthetic rubber, is the brutish, Quasimodo-like Marv, who’s determined to avenge the only woman who’s ever shown him any kindness. (A whore, of course, who’s been murdered, of course.) And Clive Owen, in an odd haircut whose damp bangs flap limply about his forehead, is a journalist of some sort in pursuit of a ragingly rotten cop called Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro, with his face twisted into a screwy prosthetic leer), who’s on his way with a pack of drunken bootboys to the “Old Town” district of Sin City, there to wreak havoc on its female inhabitants. (All whores, of course.)
The movie’s violence — the endless beatings of bound and helpless men, the smashing of women’s faces, the whipping of a young girl in a flimsy slip, the repeated plunging of a man’s head into a colorfully unflushed toilet, the hacking of heads and limbs, and the daringly unprecedented sight of a man’s genitals being grabbed and ripped right off his body — is so dementedly unrelenting that when somebody pauses to punch out a hapless dog, it’s almost a Disney moment.
The director makes much of the fact that, through digital simulation, and the draining of all color from the images (leaving only the occasional flash of an emerald eye or a crimson puddle of blood), he has been able to precisely replicate Miller’s canonical, hyper-noir environments from the comics. (The actors performed on empty soundstages; the non-existent surroundings were later layered in by computer-effects technicians.) Rodriguez says this as if he thinks no one saw last year’s “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” which presented a richer and more resonant synthetic world. “Sin City” is all style, but, by design, it’s all Frank Miller’s style. Miller already directed the film in his original drawings, and so apart from blocking the shots and angling the camera and signing the checks for the CGI guys, it’s hard to discern the precise nature of Rodriguez’s creative contribution. He’s certainly cemented his status as Fanboy Number One, though.
I like movie violence as much as the next person (well, some of the next persons). But I like it to have more snap and tingle than this sense-deadening slop. Rodriguez has transferred Miller’s comics to the screen with witless literalness. The images now move, but they still don’t go anywhere. The picture is stuck in Sin City. And for two hours and 10 bucks and no good reason, so are we.