IN A SENSE, all movies are "gimmick" movies. We pay money to see dinosaurs walk the earth, or Pacino and De Niro on screen together, or Meg Ryan take her shirt off. Even so, there are gimmick movies and there are gimmick movies.
During the '50s and '60s, the studios used different film formats as a gimmick, promising (if not delivering) genuine technical innovation that would change the theater experience. To combat television, the studios thought they needed expensive and ambitious gimmicks. By the '80s, the standard of the gimmick had fallen to Clue, a movie about a board game that was shot with three different endings--each of which you had to pay to see. So sad was the state of moviemaking that for a generation the standard for the gimmick movie was set by Jaws 3-D, which had primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of gimmickry.
Today there arrives Sin City and if nothing else can be said for it, there is this: It's the biggest gimmick movie of our time. Not only is Sin City adapted from a series of Frank Miller comic books; not only is it shot mostly in black and white with some splashes of color; not only was it made almost entirely with computer-generated sets; not only does it feature an all-star cast of some 18 above-the-line actors; not only does it boast of having three directors; but one of these directors is a "special guest director" who goes by the handle Quentin Tarantino. As gimmicks go, this is pretty strong stuff.
And as a piece of cinema, it's clearly superior to Clue.
FOR THOSE NOT STEEPED in the world of comics and graphic novels, Sin City began as a series of short stories written and drawn by Frank Miller in 1991. Drawn mostly in black-and-white, the Sin City "yarns" were dark and pulpy. Genre fans applauded their noir sensibility. But Miller's stories weren't just noir, they were positively grim. Nearly every page features beheading, torture, rape, cannibalism, disembowelment, or worse. Imagine American Psycho, but without Brett Easton Ellis's delicate sense of restraint.
The movie version of Sin City is a triptych comprised of three of Miller's stories, "The Hard Goodbye," "The Big Fat Kill," and "That Yellow Bastard." In each piece, a surly antihero kills his way to revenge and a rough approximation of justice. In the first, a mentally unbalanced thug named Marv (played by Mickey Rourke) goes looking for the people who murdered a hooker he loved, named Goldie (Jaime King); in the second, Dwight (Clive Owen) helps the prostitutes / valkyries of Old Town avoid a gang war after they accidentally kill a crooked cop (Benicio Del Toro); and in the final piece, an old police detective named Hartigan (Bruce Willis) tries to protect Nancy (Jessica Alba) from a twisted serial rapist (Nick Stahl).
Sin City is not without its charms. The green-screen work used to create the world of Basin City has moved a generation beyond last year's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and even though you can still see the seams, there are impressive moments. Co-directors Miller and Robert Rodriguez achieve a nearly panel-for-panel translation of the comics, which works well in many places--particularly when they blow out the contrast so that the screen is reduced to only black and white, with no grays. (Also striking is their depiction of rain which, like in comic books, comes down in lines rather than drops.)
A few of the dozen-and-a-half stars do nice work. As a turncoat hooker, Alexis Bledel is interesting. The nearly unrecognizable Mickey Rourke uses his rough, throaty voice to good effect during the voiceovers. Rosario Dawson is the only actress in the cast who's able to fit into the Sin City world. She even says her lines without inducing laughter; no small accomplishment, that. (Remember when Dawson was the third wheel on the Tara Reid-Rachel Leigh Cook vehicle Josie and the Pussycats? Every so often there is justice in Hollywood.)
Much of the rest of the cast is lost and left floundering in front of the green screen, trying to decide what "hardboiled" looks like; in particular Jaime King, Michael Clarke Duncan, Brittany Murphy, and Michael Madsen are ill served.
A bigger problem is the surprisingly poor job done in the narrative adaptation of the comic books. While the cinematic version of Sin City successfully copies the comics' look and feel, it doesn't capture some of the more interesting narrative nuances. For example, in the comics Miller teases readers by suggesting that Marv's quest for revenge might be the product of his own addled mind, and doesn't reveal the truth about Goldie's murderer until halfway through the story. In the movie, we see the killer sneak into Marv and Goldie's bedroom.
Much will be made about the time-shifting between the stories (the third tale takes place before the first two), but unlike other movies that make use of the same device, such as Pulp Fiction, there's no real reward for jumping back in time. Which just about sums up Sin City: Great gimmicks, but not enough of a payoff.
Jonathan V. Last is film critic for The Daily Standard and a contributor to the blog Galley Slaves.