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Review: 'Sin City' a visual pioneer

By Paul Clinton

Rosario Dawson and Clive Owen in "Sin City"
Frank Miller
Robert Rodriguez

(CNN) -- "Sin City," adapted from three hardboiled comic books by the renowned graphic novelist Frank Miller, is without doubt the most visually stunning live action transfer of the comic book format to the big screen ever made.

The stark black and white images -- with beautifully calculated splashes of vivid color -- are shockingly faithful to Miller's lurid, ultra-violent, crime-riddled world. It's an alternative universe where almost everyone is a perpetrator, a victim or a witness.

Co-directed by Miller and Robert Rodriguez -- with a special guest director stint by Quentin Tarantino -- the film was shot entirely against green screens using the latest in high-definition cameras. Rodriguez and Miller have lifted the comic-book panels from page to screen. The result is an eye-popping visceral feast.

The combination of these non-Hollywood mavericks also attracted a wide range of acting talent eager to populate this world of gun molls, prostitutes, crooked cops, serial killers and guns-for-hire. It's Mickey Spillane on steroids.

The film opens with a brief teaser featuring a doomed dame standing on a terrace high above the cold, teeming city. Her flaming red dress is in high contrast to the black and white world she inhabits. In a cameo role, Josh Hartnett enters the scene with the words, "She shivered in the wind like the last leaf on a dying tree." He then simultaneously kisses and kills her. The stage, and the tone, is set.

Then, like a smack in the face, the action charges into the first of three graphic novels, "That Yellow Bastard." This story is cut in two, thereby framing the film's beginning and conclusion. Featuring Bruce Willis as Hartigan, a good cop with a bad ticker, it's a tragic tale of the hunt for a raging pedophile named Roark Jr. (Nick Stahl). He's the son of a corrupt senator (Powers Boothe), a man who is determined to protect his offspring at all cost.

Toward the end of the movie -- when this storyline continues, the son morphs into an arch villain -- the Yellow Bastard -- allowing for one of the film's best uses of vibrant color. This vignette also features a sexually charged performance by Jessica Alba who plays Nancy, an erotic dancer who, as a child, was one of Roark's victims.

Mind-numbing repetition
Jessica Alba and Bruce Willis in "Sin City"

The attention then switches to Miller's "The Hard Goodbye," starring an unrecognizable Mickey Rourke as a half-man, half-beast killing machine named Marv. He's seeking revenge for the murder of a hooker named Goldie (Jaime King) who showed him the only touch of kindness he ever received. The search leads to Kevin, a psycho-serial killer played by Elijah Wood in an obvious move to make everyone forget all about Frodo. This story is the core of "Sin City," and it's the best of the three episodes.

The final vignette -- "The Big Fat Kill" -- includes some major performances. Clive Owen is Dwight, one of Sin City's only good guys. Rosario Dawson plays Gail, his ex-lover and the leader of a gang of Amazonian hookers. Benicio Del Toro does a great turn as Jackie Boy, a ruthless, corrupt cop. Brittany Murphy portrays Jackie Boy's reluctant girlfriend, Shellie. When Jackie Boy is murdered, Dwight steps in and maintains the truce set up between the hookers of Old Town and the cops.

Hard-core action junkies, comic book geeks and the young male movie-going demographic will undoubtedly go wild over this over-the-top blood fest. However, after "The Hard Goodbye" unfolds, "Sin City" drifts toward committing the "eighth deadly sin" -- boredom.

Due to the mind-numbing repetition of the same grotesque violence (dual beheadings, numerous scenes of people being mowed down by automatic weapons, and various faces being shoved into toilet bowls), plus the failure of a coherent weaving together of the three storylines, this wildly innovative film bogs down in the third act. Just as in life, in film, looks aren't always everything.

Instead of thinking, "What's next?" you begin to think, "Didn't we just see this?" The meticulous faithfulness to Miller's work is the film's greatest strength and its biggest weakness. As with many dark, graphic novels of this type, his stories are more focused on the visual than driven by the plot. But despite the lack of a strong narrative, this film has to be hailed as a landmark. Not only did it succeed in pushing a film genre into virgin territory, it may even have created a new one.

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