Many, many moons ago, I went with my dear friend Jenny (hey there!) and some of her pals to go see my first exposure to the world of graphic-novels-go-Hollywood. Tank Girl, starring Lori Petty, Malcolm McDowell, Ice Cube and a then-unknown Naomi Watts, was a critically reviled flick, earning not a shred of critical praise and less of an audience. Dying a quick death at the theaters and not even earning a following on video, this quirky film has never really found an audience. The drubbing is not entirely unwarranted, but Tank Girl wasn’t quite as bad as everyone made it out to be either. A lot of people found the gonzo style – colors, editing, storyline involving kangaroo people – especially jarring, but it seems to go along with the aesthetic of the comic: fast and loose, yet garishly constricted by the drawing. The translation of the fantastic onto the big screen made it less so, but the intention was actually good.
Flash forward to 2005 and the graphic novel is a more respected form by a long shot. (Heck, I even just ordered one for one of my classes for next fall.) Hollywood in particular finds the form as an intriguing source material – not so surprising, since the only difference between a comic and a storyboard is that the former has the overall page to play with. Forget Batman and even Hellboy: Oscar Boy Tom Hanks did Road to Perdition and lots of people went to see that.
Which will make it interesting to see how people react to Robert Rodriguez’s rollicking new flick (and I mean that in the best of ways), Sin City. After seeing the previews, I’ve been looking forward to this stylish coup for quite some time now – and a preview screening was announced at the very last minute. (Much to my comic-book-store-owning friend Ben's chagrin, I'm not a comic connaisseur yet.) Luckily, no baby yet (I dodged naming him Alexander Urho!! Whew!!!) – so off I went. I wasn’t alone at the screening either: this movie has a lot of expectation, and for good reason. The film is co-directed by Frank Miller, who wrote the original comic; having fought for the co-directing credit on behalf of Miller, Rodriguez has actually been kicked out of the Directors Guild for this.
Technically, it’s a gorgeous film. A study in pure contrast, the blacks are coal-black and the whites like cocaine: a fascinating recreation of ink-on-paper. Rodriguez only introduces color intermittently – a red dress, a hooker’s blonde curls, the violet eyes of a traitor, the violent yellow skin of an experiment gone horribly wrong. The ultra-violence is on full display, with the blood splattering over all the shadows in glorious crystalline white. The movie comes across as deliciously cold throughout – and obviously that’s an evident carry-over from the form of the comic itself.
And here’s where I’m not sure if I’m entirely sold on this. Rodriguez’s film exposes the icy nature of the comic book form – and simultaneously shows how movies need just a little more warmth to make them really work. The movie takes a while to get going, shifting through several nihilist-noir threads; oddly, the least successful part of the film for me was a middle section with Clive Owen, Benicio del Toro and the girls from Old Town. Devoid of any noticeable humanity, this particular section of the film also works the least. It’s a beautiful, glorious display – but here, the film lacks soul.
It’s not like the film doesn’t have any soul – said soul may be black as tar but oh, it’s there in the other major sections. Sin City first follows “Marv” and, particularly as played by stunner Mickey Rourke, he’s a motherfuckin’ revelation. Brutal, twisted and singular – but far from two-dimensional; ditto Bruce Willis in the other main section as the good cop tying to protect a little girl from harm. To some extent because there’s more story here, there is more feeling – and in my opinion, work more effectively as a movie.
Then again, Rodriguez offers a lot more for us to chew in Sin City than your standard Hollywood shoot-‘em-up that truly is soulless. (That’s directed at you, XXX: State of the Nation.) American audiences loooove their drivel. So like I said, I’m curious what will happen when this movie opens to see if people give this garish, beautiful, sexy, bloody melee a chance or whether they’ll be more satisfied with less challenging – but surely lighter – material. When it opens, let me know what you think.
(Oh yeah, happy St. Urho's Day -- hope you had lotsa red wine to make my granfather-in-law happy!)