There's a line in Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely that describes a brutish anti-hero as being "as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel cake". That's Mickey Rourke's Marv: a rampant, hulking ogre in weathered leather. Voice an unholy rasp of gargled razor-blades. Face all patchwork pulp and frazzled flesh. With hammered-down nose and hooked-up chin, he thunders around like an urban rhino on heat for revenge - - and that's revenge, not justice...
""Does it give you satisfaction, killing an old man?"" pleads a victim. ""No"," growls Marv. ""But everything up to the killing will be a real gas"."
Sin City is fierce, adult stuff. Heads are severed (we counted seven). Limbs are lopped off. Chunks are chomped out of necks, arrows thunk through faces, hands and scalps are shorn clean away. There's beating, hanging, slashing, torture by whip and some seriously smarting eyeball and genital trauma.
But this is a shamelessly abstract world and Robert Rodriguez revels in ripping up the rules of everyday physics in surrender to the exaggerated comic-book logic of co-director and Sin City author Frank Miller. Characters leap from fifth-storey windows and land on their feet. They swan-dive down stairwells, spinning off banisters. Hit by cars, they pirouette like gymnasts, thunking back to earth and asking for more.
It's thrilling to see such a classy cast freed of all the standard restraints. Everyone is styled and stylised to suit the look, but they all have a knowing glimmer in their eyes that says they're part of something fresh and special. Rourke in particular, buried though he is beneath a skipful of make-up, delivers a balls-out, born-again performance.
There's been much gab about the visuals: stark, sumptuous monochrome with flashes of post-production colour (citrusy yellows, spotlight whites, primal reds). But lazy gripes about style over substance simply don't apply. Rodriguez takes Miller's profane urban patois and swashbuckling brushstrokes and ships it wholesale. The three Sin City graphic novels adapted here - - The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill and That Yellow Bastard - - aren't just inspiration, they're storyboards. Frames and sequences are recreated shot-for-shot. Dialogue is directly transposed. Never before has a comic-book's entire soul been so faithfully, and successfully, ripped from page to screen. And as the stories briefly overlap, implying other threads and themes Miller will exploit in later books (and in the dead-cert sequels), you'll salivate at the million tales this naked city has yet to tell.
Miller's stinging film-noir-influenced verbals lend a literary edge to the carnage and carnality: the florid narration, the fancy-talking hoodlums with "delusions of eloquence", the Bible-black angst (""Hell is waking up every day and not knowing why you're here""). As with Chandler, there's poetry in the ragged stew of street trash and metaphor mash (""He was about as expert as a palsy victim doing brain surgery with a pipe wrench"").
Although Rourke is the stand-out, Rodriguez coaxes star turns from all. Elijah Wood terrifies as a mute, cannibal, high-kicking Harry Potter. Bruce Willis, seedy and scarred, looks more at home being the stand-up guy than he did in the flaccid Hostage. Benicio del Toro is a cheap and nasty nemesis for Clive Owen's dashing do-gooder, and Nick Stahl's creepy `Yellow Bastard' will linger long.
Yes, the women are decorative - - either strutting around with all assets advertised or poured into gappy bondage garb. But there's plenty of sass to go with the slink, particularly Rosario Dawson's Gail, who protects her patch with a potent force of working-girl power (including the startling Devon Aoki as a lethal lady Samurai who looks like she's escaped from Kill Bill). Only Jessica Alba's nightclub dancer Nancy is a true victim - - but that's precisely what drives the logic of her story. This ain't no treatise on sexual politics. It's an unreconstructed, man's man's world where the guys are either sickly or borderline sicko and the girls are classic noir femme fatales - - both in distress and deadly. Getting sniffy about sexism in Sin City would be like complaining about spaceships in Star Wars.
So, the bar for future comic-book treatments has officially been raised. As Raimi humanised the Marvel formula, Rodriguez has de-geeked the graphic novel. With Blockbuster Season upon us, Sin City has stolen in early and slapped down a simple challenge: follow that.