Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”

Finally, Robert Rodriguez has found a way to combine action and plot at once. His previous action trilogy – "El Mariachi," "Desperado," and "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" – was a dazzling piece of work, full of vivid imagery and colorful characters, but those existed in a sort of free-form state, with a feeling that each movie could have rearranged its scenes in random order and been approximately as entertaining. By adapting Frank Miller's comics so carefully, Rodriguez's "Sin City" can't help but have the narrative thrust he was lacking. Because it's an anthology, it still doesn't form one single coherent film, but it does have three complete stories with beginnings, middles, and endings. And it's proof just how good Rodriguez can be when he has discipline.

Make no mistake; this is a guy movie's guy movie. (Critic Jeffrey Westhoff quipped, "You know you've gone beyond run-of-the-mill movie violence when you need to use the plural for 'castrations.'") A borderline NC-17 level of violence is one of the selling points for the film. But if you have the nerves for it, this is a true roller-coaster ride of a film, and the excitement comes more from Rodriguez's technique than any of the action. It's presented in a gorgeous black and white is used both to boil images down to their essence, as when Clive Owen's white profile sinks into blackness, or when Rodriguez wants to show a striking level of detail, such as in the close-ups that reveal the nuances of the prosthetics work on Mickey Rourke's face. (This film will be long forgotten by the time its deserved Oscar for Best Makeup is given to some other title.) Rodriguez uses animation in a liberating way, presenting bodies and cars and bullets in constant motion against a vast backdrop of urban sprawl and unyielding rain. Like the comics that inspired it, "Sin City" has no time to pause and think because it has a lot of action to resolve in a limited timespan, and it barrels through the material with abandon, striking one astonishing image after another. This is an action movie on steroids, tempered by its themes of self-punishment and redeemed by its brilliant sense of style.

It's not for everyone, but the level of violence can tell you that. Besides being difficult to recommend, I wish I could say it was more perfect. The breaks from reality sometimes get too difficult to swallow, as characters are shot full of bullets and struck repeatedly by speeding cars but keep on walking, and also fall several stories at a time without a scratch on them, both reminiscent of the recklessly bad "Daredevil." And some of the actors, particularly Bruce Willis and Michael Madsen, haven't figured out how to deliver the hard-boiled prose with conviction and rhythm, so their dialogue rings terribly flat. But these flaws and a handful of others are minor in the scheme of things, a slight tarnish on an otherwise brilliant work. This is the visual feast for the first half of the year.

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