Sin City

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      Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller. Starring Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Benicio Del Toro, and Carla Gugino. Rated 18A.

      It's hard to imagine a better person to direct Sin City-adapted from three of Frank Miller's graphic novels in the same-named series-than Robert Rodriguez, who has a funny-book view of cinema to begin with.

      Surfaces are everything in this three-part tale of men's men and hot babes in the vermin-infested, bullet-ridden world of Basin City, a lowlife town that can't be bothered to fix the first two neon letters in its name. Everything and everyone is at least partially broken here, from the rotten cops, crooked politicians, rancid priests, and murderous hookers to the antique cars that most people drive.

      The technology on view is a curious combination of '50s kitschmobiles, blocky '90s cellphones, and oversized, cartoon weapons, all depicted in black-and-white relieved only by slashes of colour-usually blood red or peroxide yellow. The dames are mostly blond, frequently disrobed, and either pleading for help or blowing people away-which takes some doing here, since a guy usually has to be plugged six or seven times to even feel it. Toughest of all is a hulking brute called Marv who, underneath pounds of prosthetic face clay and rubber muscles, is played by Mickey Rourke-and when was the last time you could say that he was the best thing in a movie?

      It helps that his character's story is the strongest of the bunch: it follows what happens when a hooker with hair of gold (Jaime King) gives the ugly lug the best night of his life, only to wake up dead in the morning. Marv rightly figures that her real killer, a psychopath played by a very non-Frodoish Elijah Wood, is trying to set him up for a major fall. He then has to wade through a sea of corruption-not to mention the hooker's angry twin sister and her pals-to get to the truth. Fortunately, he has some help from his lesbian parole officer (Spy Kids mom Carla Gugino, who has obviously been logging some serious gym time), but will that be enough?

      Cops are also bad actors (and they're not the only ones) in another tale, about a nasty bastard played by Benicio Del Toro, also unrecognizable under his Play-Doh. When Del Toro's Jackie Boy gets in a tussle with his ex (Brittany Murphy, who ought to stick to cartoon voice-overs), he doesn't reckon on the vengeance factor provided by her new beau (Clive Owen), who also teams up with machine-gun-toting prosties led by leather-clad Rosario Dawson.

      The weakest story-split into two parts-bookends the picture, showing what happens when the town's one good cop (Bruce Willis), "an old man with a bum ticker", goes after a cruel pedophile (Nick Stahl) who is protected by a powerful senator who also happens to be the perp's father. The cop is framed for one of junior's crimes and, at the end of Sin City, comes back from jail time to kick some serious butt.

      At more than two hours, the film doesn't sustain narrative interest, especially after male viewers past adolescence tire of lines that are either film-noir homage or simple clichés. But what doesn't wear off is the convincing sense of a world thoroughly imagined and created. It's a study in shadowy silhouettes and creaky macho romanticism, guaranteed to bring out your inner pimple-faced teen. And you don't even have to get ink on your fingers while sitting there.