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[whitespace] Black and White

Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller pig out on knuckle sandwiches in 'Sin City'

By Richard von Busack

A STRAY QUOTE from the punk-rock days: Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators was considering a vocalist of the time—Julio Iglesias, some groaner like that—who used to play female-only concerts. "What I want to do," roared Manitoba, "is play to an audience of nothing but 300-pound men!"

Seeing the Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller/Quentin Tarantino madhouse movie Sin City offers just that kind of a testosterone-Sensurround experience. The film boasts more bloody beef than the Omaha stockyards; it's a minus-500 on the Eric Rohmer scale.

Sin City is based on Frank Miller's follow-up to his trend-setting Batman series, The Dark Knight Returns. Miller turned his attention to Mickey Spillane-style adventures in Basin City, a rain-soaked maze in need of urban renewal. Miller's imagination helped make the Batman movies possible, but it also created the comic-book movie. Too often, these films aren't just candy-colored but candy-assed. Dick Tracy is the perfect example.

Computerized toasting gives the movie a black-and-white look, and it is far easier on the eyes than the washed-out hues of the live-action computer films. Miller has superimposed his graphic look on the screen. The light oozes through mile-long Venetian blinds. The wet-asphalt blacks and streetlight whites are ornamented with spots of color: a ripe lipsticked mouth, a red cocktail dress and a cascade of ivory-white blood against a blacked-out screen. It's all very pretty for a movie that goes for the eyes and the gonads like an infuriated chimp.

For a little more than half of its two-hour running time, Sin City is exhilarating. The most breathless sequence features Mickey Rourke as "Marv," an ex-con on a Sterling Hayden-style hooligan's holiday. Made up with a foam-rubber acromegalic jaw, Rourke's head is so scarred and battered it looks like an alligator suitcase, with the flat nose as the handle. Marv is framed for murder, after a prostitute named Goldie (Jaime King) turns up dead in his bed.

With grudging help from his parole officer (Carla Gugino), he starts getting payback: "workin' my way up the food chain." This means bouncing heads off of walls and leaving watermelon-sized indentations in the bricks. While eating pills like M&Ms for an unspecified mental condition, he tracks down a superhumanly strong teenager (Elijah "Frodo" Wood!), a cross between Bluebeard and Hannibal the Cannibal. The movie gets so basic that the directors freeze-frame on the tools Marv needs for the task at hand—a hacksaw, handcuffs, a pistol, rubber tubing, razor wire, his ham-sized fists.

Clive Owen's Dwight takes over the romantic episode—romantic in the sense that romance is found in the courtship between a hit man and a vigilante prostitute (Rosario Dawson, wearing a costume you could mail cross-country for 37 cents). "My Valkyrie," Owen voice-overs adoringly; every line practically arrives in a little dialogue box, in those clipped half-sentences Miller prefers. It's hard to resist Owen's description of an army of Uzi-carrying streetwalkers as "those dizzy dames."

The weakest sequence is derived from Miller's graphic novel That Yellow Bastard. Bruce Willis Glenn Fords it as Hartigan, an aged cop who pays the price when he busts a highborn child rapist. Neither the premise, the waterfront setting, nor an uncommonly bland Michael Madsen help this section. City bosses or no city bosses, what cop wouldn't love to catch a senator's son in the act of manhandling a 10-year-old?

Later scenes have showgirl Jessica Alba stalked by a villainous yellow stinker who looks like a jaundiced Ferengi from Star Trek. Is this Sin City's salute to the Yellow Kid, pioneer of the color comic book?

Surely this is the biggest farrago since the maligned From Dusk Till Dawn. Like the previous Tarantino/Rodriguez trash compactor, it takes a moonshiner's turn from noir to horror to humor. The ludicrous violence wrings heartfelt "Eeeeucchhhs!" from the audience, and a spirit of sick fun always overcomes the malice.

Maybe the movie's most singular image is a character getting the juice in the electric chair. He rouses, shakes his head, coughs up blood and taunts his jailors further: "Is that the best you can do, ya pansies?" At times like that, Sin City raises the same doubts I harbored while watching Stephen Chow's ridiculously fun Kung Fu Hustle: Maybe quality cinema is just a dead end.

Still, after two hours, you feel like the person who ordered the $20 ice cream sundae. Halfway through all the black syrup and the strawberry gore, you can feel the old stomach starting to rebel. If you have the stomach for this, please also have the brains not to take your children.

Sin City (R; 126 min.), directed by Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller and Quentin Tarantino, written by Rodriguez and Miller, photographed by Rodriguez and starring Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba and Clive Owen, opens Friday valleywide.

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From the March 30-April 5, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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