The movie starts bad and gets better. Robert Rodriguez's adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City comics begins with a short piece, "The Customer Is Always Right," that would make a perfect introduction to the bleak world of Sin City if it didn't depend on the gravitas of Josh Hartnett, looking like a gangly high school senior in one of his father's old suits.
Like "The Customer Is Always Right," the other stories adapted for Sin City feature characters who scrupulously maintain their ethical codes - whether those codes are legal, criminal, or generally insane - in a town that doesn't respect any ethics. The movie gets exactly that much of the film noir ethos right, but everything else is drawn from some sort of Noir for Dummies handbook. The first major story, featuring Bruce Willis as aging cop Hartigan, is comprised so exclusively and so baldly of genre clichés that it's laughable, until it tries to be funny.
The next episode, starring Mickey Rourke as a too-literal incarnation of Marv (did we really need to make Mickey Rourke any uglier?), had me convinced I was finally watching the movie that all the critics of Kill Bill said Tarantino had produced. The Bride at least dismembers her foes in combat; Marv and his enemies both exult in torture, leaving no mitigating factors for the film's utter glee in the punishment of its characters.
The saving grace is a long middle sequence featuring Dwight and the ladies of Old Town. (In fact, the movie's first spark happens when the Old Town girls show up in Marv's story.) The episode benefits from more engaging actors (Clive Owen is always a pleasure to watch) and more attractive heroes - although Dwight, like Marv, makes a big deal out of slapping a woman after telling us he doesn't do that. It's a shorthand for "toughness" I can do without, but that misstep aside, this is easily the most enjoyable of the stories, and the only one in which women are anything other than simpering ingenues or torture victims.
Blame where blame is due; nearly every problem I had with the movie has its origins in the source material. Rodriguez manages to translate Miller's distinctive black-and-white artwork to the screen with surprising effectiveness - even the spot color works better than such efforts usually do. Unfortunately, Rodriguez is just as faithful to all the non-visual elements, and those carry over with far less success. People have been making fun of Frank Miller's faux-tough-guy scripting since at least Dark Knight Returns, if not Daredevil, but hearing it read aloud should, if there's any justice, destroy it once and for all. The voiceovers, especially Hartigan's, sound like what you might think film noir narration sounds like if you've never seen a film noir before.
You can't fault Rodriguez for failing to realize his ambitions; he's almost Puritanical in his literal-minded devotion to the text, and he perfectly reproduces the comics' atmosphere of artificial depravity and secondhand cliché. Whether it was worth reproducing is another matter entirely.
Read: John Pistelli's superb Sin City essay. It's what I would have liked to have written, had I been able to get past my aesthetic revulsion and onto my moral revulsion. It also has the discussion thread I would have liked to have had, had I written the essay I would have liked to have written... folks, it's been a long time since the glory days of the Kill Bill discussion, hasn't it?