Sense of Wonder: Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller – The Hard-Boiled Hitmen of Sin City

With the back-to-back home video releases of  THE SPIRIT and SIN CITY, now seems like an opportune moment to take a brief look at the cinefantastique of Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez. Although neither artist is a specialist in science fiction, fantasy, or horror films in quite the same way as someone like George Lucas, their work does impinge on the genre in interesting ways. Sometimes this is a matter of style (creating imaginary, graphic novel-inspired worlds in SIN CITY and 300); sometimes it is a matter of content (the overt sci-fi, fantasy, and/or horror elements of THE SPIRIT, ROBOCOP 2, the SPY KIDS movies, THE FACULTY, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, and GRINDHOUSE). Although both men display a vision most heavily imbued with action-packed machismo, they have, separately or together, had a big influence on genre films culminating in their collaboration on 2005’s SIN CITY (which currently has a couple of sequels in pre-production).

Frank Miller, of course, is primarily a graphic novelist rather than a filmmaker. His greatest claim to fame in this regard is The Dark Knight Returns, an impressive piece of work that revitalized the Caped Crusader and paved the way for the feature films, beginning with BATMAN in 1989. Although Hollywood did not have the nerve to adapt Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns directly to the screen, its influence is in the dark tone (the opposite of the campy ’60s TV series), and there is even a brief hat tip in the form of a reference to Corto Maltese (an area of political unrest in the graphic novel, triggering a nuclear confrontation between the US and the USSR).

Frank Miller’s influence is even more strongly felt in 2005’s BATMAN BEGINS, which borrows elements from both The Dark Knight Returns and especially Miller’s Batman: Year One. At one point, there was a plan to adapt the latter graphic novel, with Miller supplying the screenplay and with Darren Aranofsky (who helmed the excellent art house science-fiction film PI) attached to direct. As its title implies, Miller’s graphic novel tells the the story of Batman’s first year in action. Although the final screenplay for BATMAN BEGINS is not officially based on Batman: Year One, numerous similarities abound:

  • Jim Gordon, apparently the only honest cop left in Gotham, forms and alliance with the Batman, even though officially the police think that Batman is a vigilante they want to arrest.
  • Besides helping out Gordon, Batman also passes incriminating evidence about Gotham’s corrupt fat-cats to someone in the district attorney’s office.
  • Trapped in a building surrounded by the police, Batman escapes by using a transmitter that emits a sound that attracts a massive swarm of bats.
  • Batman doesn’t call his vehicle the Batmobile, and it looks more like a tank than a car.
  • The story ends with the Gordon-Batman alliance forged and ready to take on a threat from the Joker.

Of course, substantial differences exist between Miller’s version of Batman and what emerged on screen in the various films, but there is no doubt that his work lit the fuse that ignited the on-screen explosion.

Frank Miller’s first hands-on film work was writing a draft of the screenplay for the disappointing ROBOCOP 2, in which he also has a cameo as a chemist. The experience was apparently not a happy one, which is why, fifteen years later, Robert Rodriguez had to go to extreme lengths to convince Miller to film SIN CITY. Rodriguez invited Miller to help film a test scene (based on Miller’s “The Customer Is Always Right” from “The Babe Wore Red”), which became the SIN CITY’s wrap-around sequence (with Josh Hartnett as a hit man who bumps off a blond in a red dress). Rodriguez paid for the shoot, cut and scored the footage, which earned the go-ahead from Miller to make the feature. Rodriguez then invited Miller to co-direct the film, in order to make sure that the result would accurately reflect his vision.

Robert Rodriguez had first gained attention in 1992 by writing and directing EL MARIACHI, a low-budget action film with a simple story augmented with lots of exaggerated filming technique (such as speeding up the action for comic effect). After following up with a sequel-remake DESPERADO, Roriguez tried his hand at horror by directing FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996), which was scripted by Quentin Tarantino. Two years later came the science-fiction-horror film THE FACULTY, scripted by Kevin Williamson.

As with his action efforts, Robert Rodriguez’s science fiction and horror efforts were characterized by impressive displays of visual style, and he embraced the genre elements enthusiastically, without any embarrassment or any sense of guilt about needing to “elevate” the material. He was more than happy to deliver the horror unapologetically, even if that meant spraying buckets of blood and goo across the screen.

Unfortunately, this also meant that Robert Rodriguez’s films came across as slick but superficial, and despite their eagerness to please, they were never quite so thrilling that you could completely overlook their shortcomings. Sure, they were fun, but they weren’t that much fun.

Perhaps Robert Rodriguez’s style was just a bit too over-the-top – to the point that it became more cartoony than cool. This may also explain the blockbuster success of his SPY KIDS movies (his biggest hits to date) – the feel of a live-action cartoon perfectly suited material aimed at kids.

Co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller

Co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller

After a return to DESPERADO territory with ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO, an entertaining but somewhat convoluted attempt to fashion an epic action film along the lines of a Sergio Leone Western, Robert Rodriguez collaborated with Frank Miller on the film version of SIN CITY, sharing directorial credit. Somehow the collaboration brought out the best in each artist; Rodriguez’s penchant for in-your-face action and outrageous stylization was perfectly suited to Miller’s source material. As I wrote in my review of the film:

…the real triumph of SIN CITY [...] is that it creates a valid cinematic style (whatever its source and inspiration) that works on film because it tells the violent and often wildly incredible stories in a way that makes the tough-guy clichés, hard-boiled voice-overs, blond bombshells, excessive shoot-outs, and enormous bloodletting seem entirely appropriate, even if you don’t have a particular taste for graphic violence on screen.

SIN CITY may be the apex of cinematic achievement for both Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller. Typically, their work – either alone or together – evinces a penchant for tough-guy heroics, but too often this is rendered in cartoony terms, with good-looking movie stars blazing away with guns just because it looks cool. The real macho ethos is not about how many bullets you can fire; it’s about navigating a corrupt world with some kind of personal integrity intact, doing the right thing or the honorable thing – or as close as you can come – at great personal expense, not because the world or the law or the government is watching you but because you must stay true to yourself, your own personal code of honor.

This is a very appealing worldview, but it is a bit sophomoric as well; it really only makes sense if social institutions are ineffectual and/or morally corroded. SIN CITY does the perfect job of creating a world in which the personal integrity of lone men is the last bastion against an overwhelming tide of corruption. As long as you are willing to take a trip into its world, the actions make total sense.

Gabriel Macht as the Spirit

Gabriel Macht as the Spirit

In retrospect, you may suspect that Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller actually enjoy the world of SIN CITY precisely because it justifies the use of lone-wolf tactics and violent action; fortunately, this is not enough to undermine the film’s effectiveness, but the issue raises its ugly head in Miller’s recent solo outing, THE SPIRIT, which echoes SIN CITY’s visual style without ever achieving its level of conviction.

In THE SPIRIT, Frank Miller expects his audience to assume that a masked hero is necessary to fight crime; there is some lip service paid to justifying this, but it’s the flimsiest of excuses used to justify having a Good Guy beat up a Bad Guy just because it’s supposed to be way cool. The Spirit frequently soliloquizes about his love for his City, but he doesn’t seem much interested in effecting real change – which would put him out of a job.

Compare this with the far more sophisticated THE DARK KNIGHT, which also mixes superhero fantasy with hard-boiled thematic elements. In that film, Batman’s existence is justified because official law enforcement is ham-strung by institutional corruption, allowing criminality to run rampant. However, Bruce Wayne is anticipating the day he can put aside the cape and cowl, which seems to be coming when new District Attorney Harvey Dent steps in and takes on organized crime and institutional corruption.

Christopher Nolan, director and co-writer of THE DARKN KNIGHT, is not going to give his masked avenger a permanent license to act as a vigilante just because it’s the easy way out dramatically; he understands that for Batman to be truly heroic, he must be working to make himself obsolete, so that conventional law enforcement can take over and run a city that is a fit place for citizens to live in peace.

Neither Frank Miller nor Robert Rodriguez has offered anything like this in one of their films. They are too in love with pulp for its own sake, with the thrill of the kill, the crash of a car, the snap of a bone, and the flame of a dame. At their best they are smart enough to know that these lowest common denominator elements can grab an audience by the guts and make them watch, enthralled by the dark spectacle on screen. At less than their best (GRINDHOUSE, 300, THE SPIRIT), they simply pander to their own worst instincts (as Miller proudly says in “Miller on Miller,” a bonus feature on the SPIRIT DVD, “I’ve been led by my dick.”), and they end up delivering a lot of POW! without any real punch.

Hopefully, their SIN CITY sequels will pack enough punch to return them to their heavyweight contender status. They struck black gold once. Why not again?

Timed with the home video release of SIN CITY and THE SPIRIT, we have posted these reviews:

Addtionally, in our achives, you can find reviews for:

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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