The first Sin City comic by Frank Miller appeared in the Dark Horse Presents Fifth Anniversary Special (April 1991) and continued to run in Dark Horse Comics from May 1991 to June 1992. Miller had worked for Marvel, writing Daredevil, and for DC, writing The Dark Knight Returns, both of which had a bit of Film Noir in their DNA. He was a fan of old Cagney and Bogart movies and wanted that hard, dark feel in his drawing, with abundant shadow and stark backgrounds. His work draws heavily on detective and crime pulp fiction.
Sin City is really named Basin City and is located in the Western US. It’s always hot there, and it often rains a lot. The police department is armored and supplied with SWAT arms to cope with a high crime rate. Corruption is rampant in both the police and the government. The prostitutes are in charge in Old Town and the police stay away. The first Sin City film was co-directed by Robert Rodriguez, director of Al Mariachi, From Dusk till Dawn, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Grindhouse, and Machete, to name a few, and by Frank Miller himself. The Sin City movie appeared in 2005, with several loosely connected stories featuring an amazing ensemble cast of tough-guy actors and tough babe actresses.
A salesman (Josh Hartnett) on a balcony speaks to a female customer (Marley Shector) looking out over Basin City. He offers her a cigarette and shoots her. On the docks of Sin City, over-the-hill cop John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) tries to stop a child-killer named Roark Junior (Nick Stahl) from killing 11-year-old Nancy Callahan (Makenzie Vega). Junior is the son of Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) and Hartigan’s partner Bob (Michael Madsen) tries to make Hartigan walk away, but Hartigan knocks him out. With his bad heart acting up, Hartigan enters the warehouse where Junior and his goons are holding Nancy. Despite being shot in the shoulder, Hartigan shoots off Junior’s ear, hand, and balls. Bob comes in and shoots Hartigan in the back. He dies as the police arrive, happy to trade his old life for a young girl’s survival.
After a one-night stand, Marv (Mickey Rourke) awakens to find that his beautiful Goldie was killed while he slept. The police arrive to arrest him, and he vows revenge. His lesbian parole officer Lucille (Carla Gugino) cautions him not to go for vengeance. Marv interrogates several people, ending with a corrupt priest who blames the Roark Family. Marv shoots him and is attacked by Goldie’s doppelganger, unless she is another hallucination. He goes to the Roark farm and is subdued by the stalker who killed Goldie. Lucille tells him the killer is a cannibal named Kevin (Elijah Wood), and Goldie was a prostitute. Lucille is shot by a corrupt cop, whom Marv kills. He learns that Cardinal Patrick Henry Roark (Rutger Hauer) arranged to have Goldie killed. Marv goes to Old Town, the red-light district, and is captured by Goldie’s twin sister Wendy. He convinces her he is not the killer, and they go to the farm, where Marv kills Kevin. He confronts Cardinal Roark, who confesses that he and Kevin ate their victims to consume their souls. Marv kills him too but is shot and captured by guards. In the hospital, the cops threaten Marv’s mother to make him confess. He is executed in the electric chair.
Shellie (Brittany Murphy) is harassed by her ex-boyfriend Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro). Her current boyfriend Dwight McCarthy (Clive Owen) warns him to leave her alone. Jackie Boy and his gang, in Old Town, harass a young prostitute named Beckie (Alexis Bledel). Gail, the hooker leader (Rosario Dawson), witnesses. When Jackie Boy threatens Becky with a gun, martial arts expert Miho (Devon Acki) kills Jackie Boy and his whole gang. It turns out Jackie Boy is Lieutenant Rafferty of the Basin City Police, considered a hero by the Press. If a war breaks out between the hookers and the cops, the mob will move in and take over.
Dwight dumps Jackie Boy’s body in a tar pit, where he is attacked by an ex-IRA mercenary hired by the mob boss Wellenquist. Miho saves him from dying in the tar pit. The mercenary takes off with Jackie Boy’s head, but the others take it back to Old Town. Mob enforcer Manute (Michael Clarke Duncan) kidnaps Gail. Becky betrays the prostitutes to save her mother. Dwight trades Jackie Boy’s head for Gail, but the head is full of explosives. The evidence and Gail’s captors are destroyed. The hookers gun down the mercenaries while Becky escapes.
Hartigan is not dead but recovering in the hospital, when Senator Roark tells him Junior is in a coma. Hartigan will be framed for Junior’s crimes. Nancy promises to write him in prison, and she does for eight years. On parole, he finds her dancing in a bar, all grown up (Jessica Alba). He is followed by a deformed, yellow-skinned man and realizes he was set up to lead the yellow man to Nancy. They escape in Nancy’s car. The yellow man is Roark Junior (Nick Stahl in makeup), disfigured by years of surgery. Junior attacks Hartigan and takes Nancy to the Roark farm to finish what he started eight years before. Hartigan follows, fakes a heart attack, and kills Junior. He commits suicide to save Nancy from the Roarks. In the end, Becky, injured, leaves the hospital, phoning her mother. She encounters the Salesman from the beginning of the movie, dressed as a doctor.
Frank Miller had a cameo as a priest, Robert Rodriguez as a cop. The film was remarkably true to the comic book, all in black and white with bits of yellow or blood-red. Rodriguez had a hand in writing the music. Quentin Tarantino directed a small part of it. When the Directors’ Guild of America refused to let Rodriguez give Frank Miller a co-director’s credit, he resigned from the Guild. Despite not being everybody’s cup of tea, the movie received positive reviews, though some were indeed disturbed by the violence. Mickey Rourke won a Saturn Award, as well as some other accolades. Rourke and Elijah Wood, despite being in the same scene, never met each other during the filming, because the movie was shot on a completely digital backlot, in front of a green screen with the backgrounds added in post-production.
Miho’s swords were from Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Tarantino found them in his garage. Jessica Alba refused to do nude scenes, but the directors didn’t think nudity was necessary. The comic book itself was used as a storyboard. One of the hookers is dressed like Wonder Woman. Though Bruce Willis is left-handed, he played the role right-handed, like the character in the comic. One of the guns is a modified Beretta M93R, as used in Robocop, which Frank Miller co-wrote.
The Sequel, A Dame to Kill For, was designed and made in much the same way, starring many of the same actors, like Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Josh Brolin, and Rosario Dawson, plus Christopher Lloyd, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and a stunningly good Eva Green, but it was a box-office failure and received bad reviews, except for Eva Green. I suppose that the bold and innovative first film seized the public’s imagination, but the same techniques nine years later seemed old hat and had people looking for depth. There was no depth, just innovation and energy, and the energy was lacking in the sequel—many reviewers talked about checking their watches. The only sin in an action movie is boredom. Still, Sin City is a startling movie, an actual comic book come to life on the screen.