The SIN CITY Blu-Ray is an easy early candidate for any 2009 discs of the year list.
Released almost exactly four years ago, the massive impact that SIN CITY had on the way Hollywood makes movies has been somewhat blunted by subsequent efforts utilizing the tools without the talent. SIN CITY was filmed using state-of-the-art digital cameras (the Sony HDC-950) to shoot the actors on a nearly bare green soundstage; then a fully digital backdrop was inserted around the performances. This method had been used previously by George Lucas in the Star Wars prequels, but their flat presentation and Lucas’ seemingly inability to coax convincing performances from his actors (nearly everyone save Ewan McGregor appears hopelessly lost, particularly in the first film) won the process few supporters. The hyper-stylized SIN CITY is the first (and thus far, only) time that green-screen filmmaking has produced the cinematic miracle long promised audiences by forward-thinking directors.
SIN CITY actually began as a series of books by Frank Miller, regarded by many as one of the saviors of modern-day graphic novels. Perhaps only Alan Moore can claim to have cast as long a shadow since the early ’80s, but it was Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (released in 1986, the same year as Moore’s Watchmen) that set off a concussion grenade within the industry, forever changing the nature and method of storytelling within the format. The early Sin City books were written in the early ’90s and were the first to be completely written and inked by Miller in stark black and white, paying tribute to the stories’ film noir inspiration. The books were always close to Miller’s heart, and the author had refused all offers to adapt them into films until Robert Rodriguez invited Miller down to Austin, TX to witness the filming of a test sequence (the footage that would eventually make up “The Customer is Always Right” story.) Miller was blown away by Rodriguez’s approach; preserving nearly all of the author’s dialog and using his panels as strict storyboards. So close would the finished product be to Miller’s original vision that Rodriguez gave Miller co-directing credit on the film (a move that was initially blocked by the DGA, causing Rodriguez to resign in protest.) After the initial shoot, the entire city, including buildings, cars, streets and sky, was painted-in digitally during post-production, rendering a Basin City that is at once highly stylized and unreal, but also a tangible, living place. The resulting film utilized 3 of Frank Miller’s books and a short framing device; the theatrical and extended cuts differ not just in length, but how the stories are interwoven. In chronological order, they are:
The Customer is Always Right
The opening of the film features Josh Hartnett as a hitman who meets his next subject – a beautiful woman standing on a balcony while a cocktail party continues inside. She’s clearly distressed by an un-named worry, and after quietly assuring her that everything will be alright, he unexpectedly shoots her with a silenced pistol. His narration tells us that he’ll “cash her check in the morning”
That Yellow Bastard
Bruce Willis stars as about-to-retire Basin City detective Hartigan, spending his last hours before retirement going after a child murderer and rapist (Nick Stahl), who also happens to be the only son of Senator Roark (Powers Boothe.) Hartigan arrives at the docks in time to save 11 year old Nancy, and “disarm” Roark via the removal of both his shooting and raping mechanisms. Hartigan is betrayed at the last minute by his partner (Michael Madsen) and winds up framed as the pedophile/murderer. Fearing for Nancy’s safety, Hartigan remains silent, never protesting his innocence even after 8 years of imprisonment. He retains his sanity with weekly letters from Nancy – until one day the letters stop and a severed finger arrives instead. Thinking that Roark’s men have finally located her, Hartigan confesses to the crimes in order to secure parole and save the now 19 year old Nancy (Jessica Alba) from the very much alive Roark Jr., who has mutated into a bald, gangrenous-yellow colored monster as a side effect of experimental surgery used to restore his manhood.
The Hard Goodbye
After a night of passion with the beautiful Goldie (Jamie King), the hulking Marv (Mickey Rourke) wakes to the sound of police sirens and Goldie lying dead beside him, killed silently during the night while he slept. Enraged at the death of the only girl to show him kindness –Marv resembles a cross between a Dick Tracy villain and the Incredible Hulk – he sets out to find her killer. What he finds is a web of corruption leading to Senator Roark’s own brother, the real power behind Basin City, Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer, looking disturbingly like Otto Preminger) who protects Goldie’s killer, Kevin (Elijah Wood), at the Roark family farm. It turns out that Kevin has been allowed to both murder and eat the bodies of women for years, and Goldie was murdered after learning of the partnership between Kevin and the Cardinal. Marv becomes even more bent on revenge when he finds that his only friend, parole officer Lucille (the ever-gorgeous Carla Gugino) has been held captive at the farm and forced to watch as Kevin ate her own hand.
The Big Fat Kill
After spending the night with barmaid Shellie (Brittany Murphy), Dwight (Clive Owen) is forced to set her former boyfriend Jackie Boy (Benicio del Toro) straight after he barges into her apartment with his cronies (“straight” in this case means holding his head in a urine-filled toilet). Jackie Boy leaves in disgust, ready to start trouble with the prostitutes in Basin City’s Old Town section. After he pulls a gun on the girl’s leader, Gail (Rosario Dawson), the lethal martial arts expert Miho kills Jackie Boy and all his associates with her Katana sword. Things get dicey when Jackie Boy’s ID reveals him to be respected Basin City detective, whose murder at the hands of the Old Town prostitutes would bring a speedy end to the truce that has allowed the girls to run Old Town without police interference. Dwight volunteers to hide the bodies in a tar pit outside of town, but is intercepted along the way by a gang of mercenaries brought in by Basin City’s largest organized crime family who want to use Jackie Boy’s head to break the truce and take over the prostitution racket in Old Town for themselves. An informant among the girls betrays Gail and reveals their location, leading to a violent showdown to determine the course of Old Town for good and all.
In the wake of Watchmen’s disappointing box office and lukewarm critical reaction, SIN CITY seems even better now than when first released. Watchmen director Zack Snyder first employed SIN CITY’s distinctive filming style on another Frank Miller book, 300. The resulting film certainly retained the visual scheme from the book, but the adaptation was so slavish to Miller’s vision that Snyder never had room to develop his own. Watchmen had nearly the same problem; with performances and visuals feeling so locked-in that the entire production had the feel of a play that had been too-often rehearsed and arrived stale on opening night. But Rodriguez seems to be invigorated by the process that has strangled so many others. Rodriguez’ style, even filtered through Miller’s book, is assured, with carefully chosen angles and what must be a trusting relationship with actors, with no one turning in the ‘phoned-in’ performances of the type that too often wash up on the comic-adaptation shores. Miller’s bleak world-view will be familiar to his readers, and Rodriguez miraculously retains the book’s feel of corruption dripping from all levels of organized society. Each of the three main stories casts its villains from among Basin City’s 3 leadership castes: organized crime, politics, and the church. Miller’s heroes have learned through experience not to trust in any of them, as they have watched with their own eyes as they both figuratively and literally feed off the denizens of ‘Sin City’.
Those touting Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler as a comeback clearly weren’t paying much attention when SIN CITY was released in 2005. In terms of pure marquee value, Rourke’s name is just a minor one in a cast top heavy with major stars (including Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, and Benicio del Toro) solid younger talent (Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, and Jessica Alba) and experienced pros (Powers Boothe and Rutger Hauer), but it’s his Marv that becomes the unlikely heart of the film. Covered under multiple layers of latex appliances (and for a large middle section, literally dozens of facial bandages) Rourke nonetheless burrows down and finds a soul to Marv that wasn’t always evident on the page.
Rourke is matched by possibly the biggest name in the Rodriguez/Tarantino stock company, Bruce Willis. His narration beautifully sets the hard-boiled tone right from the opening moments and his weathered face grounds a portion of the film in a gritty reality. Willis is becoming geometrically more interesting to watch as he ages; the ticks and quirks that he used to fall back on even in serious roles are falling away, revealing the sort of character actor face that Anthony Mann would have sold his soul to get in front of the camera. Willis was born to walk Frank Miller’s black and white, noir-infused universe and lends Hartigan’s story a weight and purpose that is extraordinary.
Both actors lift their respective stories – “That Yellow Bastard” and “The Hard Goodbye” – beyond the realm of simple revenge tails, and into something that at least seems more meaningful. Only Michael Madsen disappoints in a minor role as Hartigan’s duplicitous partner, leading us to assume that Tom Sizemore was somehow unavailable (we’re actually thinking of starting a Facebook group devoted to digitally inserting a Sizemore performance over each of Madsen’s existing ones.)
The film’s weak link is the third tale, “The Big Fat Kill”; Owen is fine but neither he nor his character have the inherent gravity that comes with age and experience, and without the undeniably powerful revenge hook that powers the other stories, he’s stuck swinging away in the weakest link of a still-strong chain. Dawson never looked better, and her cadre of working girls look resplendent in fishnets and lace, but there’s an odd lack of focus on what should be the mail plotline – the mob takeover of Old Town – and far too much time is wasted on Dwight’s imagined chat with Jackie Boy’s corpse in the front seat of his car (not surprisingly, this is the sequence that was “guest directed” by Quentin Tarantino).
As the dodgy link in the chain, Rodriguez should have gotten “Kill” out of the way in a hot hurry, but instead chose to wrap the strongest, “Bastard,” around the other two (the story pauses after Hartigan is shot by his partner just after saving young Nancy and resumes after “Kill.”) As in Miller’s books, the characters and stories interact with each other to a limited degree – we see Marv sitting at the bar during Hartigan’s visit to Kadie’s bar, where Dwight’s girlfriend Shellie (Brittany Murphy) works – and “Bastard” does have a natural break when Hartigan is sent to prison.
Fortunately, anyone who finds the ordering of the stories problematic will be thrilled to hear that, like the previous special edition DVD, the new Blu-Ray edition of SIN CITY presents each story individually (though unlike the previous DVD, you can play all stories straight through) in extended cuts, bringing the running time to 147min (versus the 126min theatrical edit). Once you watch the original theatrical edit, we find watching the individual extended stories to be constantly rewarding, filling out the superb “Bastard” and “Goodbye” with welcome character grace notes and making them feel more like separate features than merely smaller parts of a whole.
Howeverthis does leave “Customer” a bit out in the cold, as it only exists to start and end the film – presented on its own, it doesn’t make much sense. This also brings up one small gripe with the set. Though the 147-min running time sounds great, remember that each of the four sections is presented with a separate set of closing credits. This totals close to half of the 20min of “new” footage, and, since the technical crews ought to have been the same, it is rather nonsensical.
The 1080p Blu-Ray image is quite simply one of the best we’ve ever seen. With the unusual nature of the photography, we were frankly prepared for anything, as this sort of high-contrast photography can be a nightmare to get under control unless someone who knows what they’re doing is paying careful attention. Because SIN CITY was shot on digital video cameras, this Blu-Ray should be a direct hard-drive transfer (in much the same way as the Pixar movies are) and that’s exactly how it looks. During “Bastard,” the added detail reveals the scruff on Willis’ chin and the lines on his face so vividly as to almost appear to be 3D. It’s a reference-quality disc that ought to win over just about anyone. And though the DTS-HD mix is somewhat over the head of our equipment, it was certainly good enough to make us wish we didn’t have neighbors. The Blu-Ray replicates nearly all the special features from the previous DVD edition, adding two HD exclusives:
Disc 1: Restored Theatrical Version
- Cine-Explore – Blu-ray Exclusive
- Commentary With Robert Rodriguez And Frank Miller
- Commentary With Robert Rodriguez And Quentin Tarantino
- Audio Track Featuring A Recording Of The Austin Audience Reaction
Disc 2: Recut, Extended, Unrated Version
- Kill ‘Em Good Interactive Comic Book — Blu-ray Exclusive
- Rodriguez Special Features
– 15-Minute Film School
– All Green Screen Version
– The Long Take
– Sin City: Live In Concert
– 10-Minute Cooking School
- How It Went Down: Convincing Frank Miller To Make The Film
- Special Guest Director: Quentin Tarantino
- A Hard Top With A Decent Engine: The Cars Of Sin City
- Booze, Broads And Guns: The Props Of Sin City
- Making The Monsters: Special Effects Make-Up
- Trench Coats & Fishnets: The Costumes Of Sin City
- Teaser And Theatrical Trailer
As with all of Rodriguez’s commentaries, this one (two, actually) is/are a gas. The guy is practically a one-man filmmaking band, and it’s amazing to hear that he still has enough energy and enthusiasm left for two separate chat tracks. Rodriguez and Tarantino have recorded tracks together before (From Dusk ‘Till Dawn) and listing to these two revving each other’s geek-engines might not be to everyone’s taste, but we always find it an infectious good time – and stay tuned for a surprise guest showing up towards the end. Rodriguez’s track with Miller will be of enormous interest to comic fans, and it’s interesting to hear how they did actually work in congress to make the film (making it a shame that Miller couldn’t get similar help on last year’s The Spirit, a truly gut-wrenching disappointment that, we’re sorry to say, robs many of SIN CITY’s style points.)
The audience reaction track is a fun idea – and once you know the film, there are several beats that you’ll want to hear a crowd react to – but we can’t imagine watching the entire film this way. The major Blu-Ray exclusive, is the “Cine-Explore” feature, which is an easier to handle variant on Universal’s daunting U-Control feature. When running, it activates the Rodriguez-Miller commentary track and highlights whatever BTS footage is available that illustrates what the filmmakers are discussing at any given moment. We were surprised at how well it actually works, and would love to see it used on other extant commentary tracks.
The extras on the second disc are all from the previous DVD and transcend the standard EPK fluff. The green screen version is basically the entire film as is was originally shot, in color and on an all green sound stage (though run through at many, many times normal speed.) There’s likely no place in the world with a less noir-ish atmosphere than a bare, bright green stage, and this helps to really appreciate the technical marvel that SIN CITY represents. The Long Take offers a fascinating peek into the filming of Tarantino’s segment with Owen and del Toro. It’s not our favorite scene, but it’s very interesting to see how the actors work, both with the director and with each other. We’re also continually amazed at the amount of good information Rodriguez packs into his ‘Film School’ shorts.
The second disc’s Blu-Ray exclusive is the “Kill ‘em Good” interactive comic book, which is apparently a game inspired by “The Hard Goodbye.” Our patience with “interactive games” on discs ran out long ago, and we gave it a miss. If any reader feels like jumping in – please give us a report! Unfortunately, the previous 2-disc DVD set came with a fabulous extra that hasn’t been included here: a paperback copy of “The Hard Goodbye” (consider keeping the packaging from the old set and swap out the discs.)
The SIN CITY Blu-Ray is an easy candidate for the 2009 discs of the year list, with an image so eye-popping that you almost forgive that the older supplements haven’t been upgraded to HD. Highly, highly recommended.