[2015 Update: Revisiting this post a decade after I wrote it, I find that it’s the sort of review that I hope I’ve learned to write better. You’ll see that I’ve let my frustrations with the film overwhelm my capacity to assess its artistry with patience and detail. But as a matter of record, this was my honest reaction to the film at the time. I’m also now attaching, for the first time, the text that I wrote for Christianity Today‘s Film Forum on the occasion of this film’s release. That will give you some excerpts from other critics’ reviews.]

“After a while I’m only punching wet chunks of bone into the floorboards, so I stop.”

That’s just a snippet of the narration provided by one of the “heroes” in this orgy of violence and sensuality. He tells us this after we’ve watched him beat a man senseless, and eventually beat him faceless … just about headless, in fact.

But it sums up the whole film.

Here’s how you tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys in this Robert Rodriguez movie: Villains in Sin City take pleasure in hateful violence of appallingly graphic and extreme proportions. And the heroes? They take pleasure in hateful violence with the added aspect that they’re doing it to protect somebody. But let’s face it — that doesn’t change the fact that they’re taking pleasure in the destruction of life, and that their elaborately bloody executions are presented with maximum cool in order to give us pleasure at the same time.

This isn’t like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, where the violence is presented as absurdity and the performers as utter buffoons whose crimes show them to be severely naïve and contradictory. This is all manner of things that should dismay us wrapped up in a package to present it as utterly and compellingly cool. Tarantino, who directed one of these sequences, could have invested something meaningful into this otherwise bankrupt project, but he does damage to his own integrity instead.

Thus, Sin City is a truly shameful product. These artists were clearly eager to blaze new trails for animation and desktop-computer moviemaking. And what did they do with the opportunity? They designed something that throws fuel on the destructive appetites of adolescents, both young and old.

Sure, some of the characters are putting their lives on the line to protect the innocent, but their virtue is not going to inspire anyone. The film focuses on cheap thrills for the majority of its screen time, and it wastes the formidable talents of actors who should know better — Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, Rosario Dawson, and others.

It doesn’t matter how fantastic your frosting might be — if you spread it over a cake laced with poison, it’s still a poisonous cake. Sin City plays like a “gateway drug” for violence porn and, well, porn porn — and thus it’s sure to be rented and relished by young moviegoers everywhere, encouraging them to enjoy sensationalized violence and disregard matters like suffering, conscience, and responsibility.

The lascivious, cruel, juvenile imaginations that invented it should be sent to detention and grounded from the big screen for a few years to come.

Christianity Today’s Film Forum on Sin City

Sin City is a comic book for grownups — specifically for grownups who appreciate film noir.

Film noir, as a genre, lacks a specific definition. Landmark noir films are characterized by a prevalent darkness, both visual and spiritual. The “heroes” find themselves in difficult situations, where they have to rebel against the system to achieve their goals; thus noir often focuses on criminals driven by necessity or do-gooders reluctantly employing desperate, violent, illegal methods. Authority figures are typically portrayed as corrupt. Most have a femme fatale — an exaggeratedly sensual woman who spells trouble for the conflicted protagonist. Villains often make an impression by exhibiting an air of amusement as they inflict cruel and unusual punishment. Innocent people are rarely involved, but when they are, they suffer greatly.

We’re left with an abiding sense that film noir characters live in a godless world, alone to mete out their own messy justice. We wouldn’t want to live in a noir world, but as an exercise in storytelling about what the world looks like to those without faith, it has its merits. For a thorough exploration of noir’s history as a style and a genre, read this summary by Eddie Muller (GreenCine).

Chinatown is considered a masterpiece of film noir, and so is Blade Runner — the supreme work of sci-fi noir — but American film noir had its beginnings from the ’30s to the ’50s. Classics include Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon.

Sin City takes noir a step farther. It takes the conventions of the genre and exaggerates them to the edge of lunacy. A colleague of mine described it as “camp noir.” Director Robert Rodriguez, creator of El Mariachi and the Spy Kids franchises, uses startling, stark animation with live footage, and achieves a different result entirely from last year’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, or, for that matter, the original live-action/computer-animation blend of Tron.

The film, like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, delivers three relentlessly violent, sordid stories straight from the graphic novel by Frank Miller. Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is a policeman with a bad heart who promises to protect a young stripper (Jessica Alba.) Micky Rourke plays Marv, a beleaguered loner on a mission of vengeance after the death of his lover (Jaime King). Clive Owen plays Dwight, who’s in love with a blonde (Brittany Murphy), but works to defend women of Sin City‘s red-light district (Rosario Dawson, Devon Aoki, Alexis Bledel) from a corrupt policeman (Benicio Del Toro).

The problem with Sin City is not its genre. The problem is the way that it exaggerates the conventions—brutality, morally misguided heroes, monstrous villains, and sensuality. People aren’t likely to come away talking about the ethical dilemmas of the heroes; they’ll be buzzing about the sensationalized blood, guts, and sexuality. The film ends up appealing to a viewer’s baser appetites, which contributes to ensuring that our own world is, ultimately, a little darker.

“There is one crucial way in which Sin City, the film, is not like Sin City, the comics,” says Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies). “Each of the original stories was meant to be digested on its own, but the film strings several of them together, and the cumulative effect of sitting through so many grim, morbid, hyperviolent tales is numbing to the soul.”

Chattaway describes this collection of stories as “an exercise in male fears and fantasies,” and says that the theme of the stories seems to be “a deep distrust of authority, whether of the political or ecclesiastical kind.”

He also compares this film to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and finds Tarantino’s work to be superior. “Tarantino, perhaps despite himself, turns his pulp source materials into genuine works of art that pose interesting moral and spiritual questions, but Rodriguez, more often than not, is content to toss off films that look cool but offer nothing of any lasting spiritual benefit.”

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it “a hard-boiled fever dream of highly stylized brutality, morbid humor and sexual imagery which — though intentionally over-the-top — pushes the envelope of even its restrictive R rating.”

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) does not disguise his disgust with Rodriguez’s film. “I’m compelled to note, first, that the way each ‘hero’ goes about doing ‘the right thing’ is beyond flawed. It’s demented. So as not to prolong my own agony (or yours) by continuing to dwell on the sordid details of Sin City, I’ll condense my conclusion to 10 words Bruce Willis says onscreen: ‘There’s wrong, and then there’s wrong, and then there’s this.'”

You won’t get a rave from Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) either. “[The film] has no overall purpose, other than pushing the envelope just for the sake of ‘art.’ It didn’t need to be made, and no one needs to see it. A mature adult who lives right and who has absolutely no imbalances or secret sins could probably watch it with a minimum of personal side-effects. Anyone else REALLY needs to stay as far away from this kind of material as possible.”

Maurice Broaddus (Hollywood Jesus) gives Sin a more positive spin. “An exercise in style that threatens to supplant substance, the movie is visually stunning and demands viewing. If nothing else, it reminds us that our spiritual journeys are relational, not propositional (a matter of following or reciting a formula). The characters live out their beliefs, showing that even in Sin City, love, in the form of self-sacrifice, can be found.”

On the same site, Matthew Hill says the violence “feels like violence for the sake of violence — and just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should.” But he adds that the movie is about “people’s undying sense that things are not right with the world. That we all, in fact, live in Sin City. And, going further, it’s yet another story about our undying sense that we need to be saved from such a place, because we won’t be able to do it alone. That we all need a knight in shining armor. That we all need God.”

Most mainstream critics are so impressed with the cast, the blend of live action and animation, and the imagination onscreen, they say the pros outweigh the cons. But some of them find themselves dispirited by the relentless darkness.

Anthony Lane (The New Yorker) says, “We have, it is clear, reached the lively dead end of a process that was initiated by a fretful Martin Scorsese and inflamed … by Tarantino: the process of knowing everything about violence and nothing about suffering. Rodriguez is pleased to flash his hipster credentials, proud of the hole where his heart is supposed to be … “