There's always something falling from the sky in Basin City. Sometimes it's rain, sometimes snow, sometimes bodies. There's usually something flying through the air as well—most often, vintage cars and bullets. Sin City captures their movement in loving detail. Whatever their trajectories, they catch what flashes of light cut through the blackness of the seemingly relentless night blanketing a city made up of equal parts Raymond Chandler Los Angeles, '40s film noir, and German horror-movie nightmare. Basin City is a dark place full of lonely characters who aren't adverse to violent acts, whether out of greed or the need for one last stab of redemption.
Comic-book readers already know the city well. After reinventing Batman and Daredevil in the '80s, writer-artist Frank Miller spent much of the '90s populating his comic Sin City with trench-coat-clad losers, crooked cops, and vengeful hookers. He realized his vision with black-and-white imagery that, at its most extreme, edged into an abstract expressionist reflection of his characters' twisted psyches and overheated sexuality. Miller paced his stories to first-person narration told in rat-a-tat prose that wasted no words when pictures could do the talking. The Robert Rodriguez-instigated film Sin City doesn't so much adapt Miller's books as upload them. It combines four Sin City stories, taking as many words and as much imagery from the comic as it can, using live actors working against an immersive field of CGI effects. Rodriguez decided that Miller's constant presence on the set was enough to earn him a co-directing credit, and though the issue prompted Rodriguez's split from the Directors' Guild of America, the credit seems fair. Rarely has a director showed so much dogged faithfulness in an adaptation. (Even the contributions of "special guest director" Quentin Tarantino are impossible to pick out; like every other moment, they're subsumed into the house style.)
For the most part, Sin City confirms the wisdom of this approach. Miller's terse pulp poetry sounds electric when paired with action that redefines ultraviolence. Blood spurts, limbs fly, and human bodies do things that bodies just don't do, but when excess is much of the point, nothing can feel excessive. Miller and Rodriguez work big: The ever-present CGI tweaking makes the film as much a work of animation as a flesh-and-blood enterprise, and the extremity of the action feeds into their oversized themes of guilt and vengeance. Their cast knows how to work big as well, from an unrecognizable Mickey Rourke (as a goon with a gold heart and lead fists) to Bruce Willis (as an aging cop intent on protecting the woman he was wrongly convicted of abusing as a child) to Clive Owen and Rosario Dawson as ex-lovers working to preserve a truce that ensures hard-won autonomy for the city's prostitutes.
But excess of another kind troubles the film: The cumulative effect of all those grizzled men and gorgeous women, and the little wars they wage on each other, creates a kind of overload as the film stretches on. Some of the stories' black humor doesn't translate as smoothly as it should, but mostly, Miller and Rodriguez match their ambitions in every scene, creating a thriving hybrid of film and graphic storytelling that plays to the strengths of both forms. Sin City draws on the cumulative history of both mediums, creating a pastiche that would have been technologically impossible even three years ago. Its creators invent a queasily intoxicating new world. No one in their right mind would want to live there, but visitors may recognize twisted bits of their own world lying beneath the lights on the gleaming, dirty streets.