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Film Talk: Looking Back – Neo-noir comic-to-screen sensation with Sin City

Back in the heady days before the mid-noughties we all thought we knew what comic-book flicks were and could be. Until 2005, we didn’t have a clue...

Born in the wrong century... Mickey Rourke as Marv in Sin City
Born in the wrong century... Mickey Rourke as Marv in Sin City

Audiences had long since enjoyed the delights of 1978’s Superman and its 80s sequels. Tim Burton’s Batman set a darker though still quite camp tone that was popular with viewers in 1989, and the acclaimed director followed this up superbly with 1992’s Batman Returns.

There were two further caped-crusader flicks in the 90s that we prefer not to discuss, but then 2002 finally treated us to a passable live action version of Marvel’s friendly neighbourhood what's-his-face, and all seemed relatively well in the comic-comes-to-cinema world.

Still, who wants to be content with ‘relatively well’?

2005 saw three films arrive that changed the possibilities and scope of the comic-book movie forever. One was Christopher Nolan’s sublime Batman Begins. Another was the adaptation of Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta. And the third was a little project that had been cooked up by a certain Mr Rodriguez...

Sin City was an inspired graphic novel adaptation, produced and directed by Robert Rodriguez alongside source material author and comic-book prophet Frank Miller.

A neo-noir crime anthology flick, much of Sin City is based on the first, third, and fourth books in Miller’s original comic series.

The film is immediately recognisable due to the colour processing used which rendered most of the film in black and white while retaining or adding colour only for selected objects. This distinctive look kept faith with Miller’s original Sin City comics.

Featuring a large ensemble cast, Sin City showcased some of the finest screen talent of the day. Stars included Benicio del Toro, Brittany Murphy, Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Bruce Willis, and Elijah Wood. Also cast were Alexis Bledel, Michael Clarke Duncan, Rosario Dawson, Carla Gugino, Rutger Hauer, Jaime King, Michael Madsen, Nick Stahl and Makenzie Vega.

With the pieces set, the style locked, and some fantastically gritty source material to play with, expectations were high. But would the Miller/Rodriguez partnership deliver?..

Three weary anti-heroes of Basin City – a hotbed of immorality, crime and corruption – cross paths as they make their presence known in the town's underworld. On the edge of retirement, Detective John Hartigan (Willis) tears down barriers and unwritten rules to save a young girl from the clutches of a privileged child molester.

On the other side of town, brutal ex-convict Marv (Rourke) finds himself framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and is hell-bent on bloody revenge.

And as a fragile truce between the city's prostitute community and its cops hangs by a thread, the stoic Dwight McCarthy (Owen), becomes a protector of the former. But in a city built on so much sin, can redemption truly be found?..

Sin City opened to wide critical and commercial success, gathering particular recognition for its style and the effect of its colour processing. Screened at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival in competition, the film won the Technical Grand Prize for it’s visual shaping. This of course was just part of bringing Frank Miller’s bleak and gritty vision to life – an objective that was also achieved thanks to a store of fantastic performances, particularly from Owen, Rourke, Willis and Dawson.

Along with V For Vendetta and Batman Begins, Sin City opened the door for the ‘truly dark’ comic-book movie. Were it not for these three movies, the 2009 Watchmen adaptation would probably have fallen by the wayside, shows like Amazon’s The Boys would be non-existent, and key darker elements of the MCU may have been swerved.

Sin City perfectly embodies the spirit of its source material and proves that great art can move successfully to another medium in superb fashion. Quite simply, it is a brilliant film that remains infinitely watchable, and is one of the finest flicks of the wider comic-book genre to date.

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