30-Day Movie Challenge, Day 2: A Film You Like That Starts with the First Letter of Your Name

Wow. How many movies start with ‘S?’

Answer: a whole crap-ton.

I thought long and hard about this one, considering the likes of Serpico, Seven, Smokey and the Bandit, and, of course, the inimitable Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssssss Song.

In the end, despite the fact that other comic-book films are going to show up on this list, I chose a non-traditional entry in the genre.

Photo courtesy of Miramax

This is not a light-hearted PG-13 MCU romp. This is a graphically violent, foul-mouthed, fatalistic yarn that earns its hard-R.

And I love it.

Robert Rodriguez is a director I unapologetically stan. Machete is nothing short of a masterpiece. Planet Terror is a zombie movie done well, which is very difficult. (I’ll go into more depth on day 3.) Spy Kids is … OK, I didn’t watch his kiddie movies, but Sin City is certainly not for the youth of the world.

Throw in an ensemble cast–Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Clive Owen, the late Brittany Murphy, Rosario Dawson, Mickey Rourke, and Elijah Wood in a much-less-than-lovable turn–and you’ve got your hook in my cheek at least.

That’s not even to mention the adorable little Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) taking a turn as a ninja prostitute.

One of my favorite types of books, even if they are often pooh-poohed by “serious” critics, is the hard-boiled crime novels. Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, all writers I adore. I’m a sucker for the new iterations as well, chiefly Dennis Lehane and Walter Mosley.

That style of writing hit the silver screen in the early days of Hollywood, creating a genre known as noir. It’s a sophisticated art form, stories populated by femme fatales, wiseguys, and hard-nosed detectives. Still, no matter what side of the law you fall on, no one is innocent. No one is actually good.

Yes, in the 40s and 50s, Hollywood had tapped into a vein of nihilism that wouldn’t be out of place in a contemporary Rob Zombie film.

And then it died, mostly. Sure, there was the occasional Chinatown or the criminally underrated Night Moves.

Seriously, y’all, you need to see this film.

But, as is often the case, storytelling is cyclical. We’ve come back around to the genre, calling it neo-noir now, since we’ve fast forwarded ahead a few decades.

Sin City is deep into this world. Literally, everything is black-and-white, with a few flashes of color just to add to the breathtaking cinematography. (Others would try to mimic this–looking at you The Spirt–but no film does it better.)

Every convention is turned on his head. The hard-drinking, scarred Marv (Rourke) and the down-on-his luck detective Hartigan (Willis) are the only two souls that might be redeemable. Except perhaps the wide-eyed innocent Nancy (Alba), who now dances with a lasso at a seedy strip joint.

The more power one has in Sin City, the more corrupt they are. From the cops to the priest to the lawmakers, everyone is covering something up. And through the wonder of intercut, intersecting narratives, everything comes to a head in a violent, bloody (albeit yellow blood) shootout.

Like his buddy Quinten Tarantino, Rodriguez cut his teeth on exploitation films of the 70s, and it wouldn’t be too much of a slog to draw a line from the noir flicks of the 40s/50s as an influence. Sin City certainly borrows from both genres.

And like a lot of exploitation flicks, the film is problematic, especially in its treatment of women. For starters, there’s the character of Nancy, and the male gaze of the camera. It’s all too literal, as we watch her dance through the eyes of both Marv and Hartigan. The latter, recalling her as a young girl, finds it cringey, but the audience doesn’t.

Again, courtesy of Miramax

I don’t want to come off as an old lecher here (though Alba is technically close to my age and a few months older than my wife), but I will forever carry a torch for this woman. (Wait till day five of this challenge.) Generally, I decry the male gaze as objectification, but I’m only human. And Alba is less a human being and more a marble statue carved in the image of perfection.

But Nancy needs to be rescued by Hartigan … again. Marv sets out on a quest to avenge the murder of Goldie (Jamie King), and Dwight (Owen) saves Shellie (Murphy) from her abusive boyfriend Jackie Boy (Benicio del Toro).

Sounds like a litany of damsel-in-distress narratives. And it kind of is. Until we get to Old Town, a place where prostitutes run the show. Led by Gail (Dawson), these women don’t need the protection of a man. Flat-out ninja warriors, especially deadly Miho (Devon Aoki), the women quickly put Jackie Boy and his neanderthal cohorts in their place … which is ultimately the tar pits.

I don’t know if that redeems the film or if it is still misogynistic. After all, Frank Miller, the author of the comic books as well as other magnificent runs with better-known properties such as Batman: The Dark Knight Rises and Daredevil: Born Again actually turned out to be kind of a tool.

What I do know is that Sin City is a film that straddles the lines of neo-noir, comic book movie, and exploitation film, all both seamlessly and stunningly.

For all its controversy, it’s one of those flicks I find myself continuing to return to, and I enjoy it each time.

That has nothing to do only the slightest bit to do with Jessica Alba.

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