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Murder ink

Stylish and violent, 'Sin City' is ripped right from the comic book's pages

It's been a long three months, but the dry season is over: ''Sin City" is the first great Hollywood joy ride of the year. Hyperstylized and ultra-ultra-violent, this adaptation of Frank Miller's two-fisted cult comic book series barrels through a black-and-white moral landscape like a runaway bullet train, and it makes no stops for those with delicate constitutions to stagger off.

The film is proudly sensationalistic and hellaciously incorrect, but as directed by Robert Rodriguez and Miller himself (with a guest assist from Quentin Tarantino), it's also a stunning, visceral piece of work -- cheap thrills polished to the level of high art.

''Sin City" -- tellingly, the ''official" title is ''Frank Miller's Sin City" -- is also the most faithfully realized comic book adaptation to hit the screen to date, with dialogue lifted still wet from the original speech balloons and camera shots fetishistically re-creating Miller's stark, impressionistic panels. For better and for worse, this is the one the fanboys have been waiting for.

Can an outsider penetrate such a brutally funny macho universe? Yes, because comics legend Miller and Rodriguez, the mad-genius family man behind both the ''Once Upon a Time in Mexico" trilogy and the ''Spy Kids" franchise, have directed ''Sin City" to within an inch of their lives.Collecting roughly 3½ stories from the comic, they've taken a gallery of lowlifes, played by an engagingly motley cast, and set them in a digital film noir metropolis filmed in luscious black and white.

There are random splashes of color -- a femme fatale's blond mane of hair, a hooker's cobalt-blue eyes, the diseased yellow skin of a very bad bad guy -- but this world is so monochromatic even the gunshot wounds bleed phosphorescent white. (Occasionally the film cuts to white-on-black silhouettes, which would be more striking if the iPod ads hadn't gotten there first.)

Of the movie's intertwined narratives, the prize probably goes to the one that rescues Mickey Rourke, of all people, from the pop-culture has-been bin. The actor is nearly unrecognizable as Marv, a hostile lug with a head shaped like a pitching wedge, but Rourke uses the facial prosthetics to bully his way ecstatically through the film's mayhem, like a man who has seen it all and no longer cares (which may be as true for him as for his character).

Marv is an ex-con loser with no one on his side except a butch parole officer named Lucille (Carla Gugino, walking around in nothing but a thong for no apparent reason and all the obvious ones). Then a goodhearted whore (Jaime King) is murdered in his bed, and Marv goes on a rampage to find the responsible parties. This leads him to a fine young cannibal, played by Elijah Wood as if he hoped to bury all memories of Frodo; a rotten-hearted cardinal (Rutger Hauer) also figures into the mix, as does a mendacious priest played by Miller himself.

Elsewhere in Sin City, the streetwalkers of Old Town are in a fix: A cop has been killed, and the delicate truce by which the women control their own business is in danger of coming apart. This story line, based on the ''Big Fat Kill" series of ''Sin City" stories, is notable for some of Hollywood's most beautiful young actresses dressing in S&M chic and snarling with abandon. Rosario Dawson (''Alexander") heads the group, but Alexis Bledel (''Gilmore Girls") pops up as a woman with uncertain allegiances, and Devon Aoki (''2 Fast 2 Furious") swipes the entire sequence as a sullen little Ninja hooker named Miho.

This somehow dovetails with the story of hard-luck hunk Dwight (Clive Owen), who loves Dawson's Gail when he's not romancing bartender Shellie (Brittany Murphy) and protecting her from a sadistic ex-boyfriend named Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro). In the film's most baroque tangent, Jackie Boy ends up maimed in spectacular fashion, and it's no surprise that this is where guest director Tarantino decided to apply his cinematic muscle. Such is the stylistic coherence of ''Sin City," though, that you can't really tell who filmed what.

Finally, there's Hartigan (Bruce Willis), the grizzled police detective who in the movie's opening sequence protects a young girl named Nancy (Makenzie Vega) from a rich-kid serial killer (Nick Stahl) and, later in the film, discovers she has grown up into an angelic pole dancer played by Jessica Alba. This is the weakest of the major story lines, and not just because Alba acts with the force of a wet paper towel (or because Hartigan's love for Nancy borders on the pedophilic). It's the one place in ''Sin City" where Miller hasn't boiled his stew of trash influences into something new. That said, the sequence ends with a touch that may have even hardened filmgoers yelping in disbelief.

What keeps the movie from collapsing into a pile of clever nastiness? Bravura style, anarchic humor, and a deep appreciation for the power and pungency of lowbrow American culture. The action in ''Sin City" adheres thrillingly to the laws of comic-book physics: Cars soar high into the air around every corner; heroes take hundreds of bullets and keep coming. Rodriguez and Miller have delivered on the promise and peril of CGI, and their digital world feels more hyper-real, more urgent, than the mundane one waiting outside the multiplex. This is the reason there are fanboys in the first place.

If that doesn't give you pause, maybe it should. There are many reasons that the moralizers, not to mention a lot of women, will be put off by ''Sin City": It's so violent that at times I felt like Alex the Droog having a night out with the boys, and so gleefully sexist that the good girl's a stripper. At the same time, the movie plays fair by the rules of its down and dirty genre -- you know what you're getting into. More problematic is that all the sensation, in the end, has nothing to say about the world we actually live in. ''Sin City" is as sealed off from reality as a double-bagged mint-condition comic in a collector's closet. Tarantino may have nicked the title first, but this is the real ''Pulp Fiction," with all the drama and the dead ends that implies.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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