Mark Kermode - Barely human

Film - A triumph of style over substance is hard to fault, writes Mark Kermode

Sin City (18)

Designed to within an inch of its life, Sin City is a visually splendid - if ultimately rather empty - adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novels which blurs the line between live action and lithography, between the artist's pen and the actor's performance. A monochrome vision of neo-noir excess, splashed with blood-red streaks and golden-blonde highlights, the film puts Miller's eye-catching source material right up there on the screen, earning the artist his first co-directing credit alongside inventive whizz-kid Robert Rodriguez. While other screen adaptations (such as the recent clunker Elektra) have merely hinted at Miller's original designs, Sin City turns the movie screen into a living, breathing comic book, flicking its well-thumbed pages at 24 frames a second and redefining cinema's often uncomfortable relationship with graphic novels.

Like in "guest director" Quentin Tarantino's award-winning Pulp Fiction, the narrative of Sin City comprises a jigsaw puzzle of interlocking tales based upon the misadventures of a menagerie of hard-boiled archetypes: the rugged private investigator; the dishwater waitress; the tough street-fighter; the renegade cop; the hard-as-nails hookers. Emblematic of its unusual appeal is Mickey Rourke, whose ragged face (already something of a Picasso) is transformed into the monstrous visage of Marv via Greg Nico-tero's terrific prosthetic make-up. A cross between Borowczyk's insatiable Bete and Disney's loveable Beast, Marv provides the perfect vehicle for Rourke's barely human charms.

Elsewhere, Bruce Willis buffs up his trademark squint-eyed scowl as Captain John Hartigan, Bond-contender Clive Owen gets down and dirty as former shutter-bug Dwight, and Nick Stahl uglies up as the twisted psychopath Roark Jr, dragged back from death's door in a state of corpulent unpleasantness to become the repugnant "Yellow Bastard". As for the fatal femmes, Miller merrily admits to the cartoonist's "dirty secret" of drooling while drawing, and thus leather and lingerie become obligatory uniforms, off- set by an armoury of exotic weaponry (guns, swords, high-heel boots), which the women brandish with aplomb. That almost every female character is a sex worker of some description tells you something about the Boys' Own depth of characterisation - apparently, Sin City's shamelessly adolescent creators were not overly troubled by issues of personality when it came to conjuring the girls.

The end result is a glamorously gore-soaked, two-dimensional romp that revels in stylish slayings and superficial sadism, filtering its ultra-violence through a seductively distancing visual invention that takes the edge off any genuine nastiness: the most frenetic scene of blood- letting eschews deep-red splatters for oozing tides of white, which splash suggestively (rather than explicitly) over the screen. At just over two hours, it's way too long, and the storytelling is nothing like as taut as the Mickey Spillane potboilers from which it draws parodic inspiration. But as an exercise in the literal translation of its trash-art source, and a bravura triumph of style over substance, it's hard to fault. Like the inhabitants of its eponymous town, Sin City has no soul, but when a body looks this good, it seems churlish to get upset about its utter lack of heart.

At the other end of the creative spectrum, Adam and Paul is a beautifully nuanced and rather insightful Irish tragicomedy about a day in the life of two hopeless Dublin drug addicts. Tom Murphy and writer-actor Mark O'Halloran play it like Laurel and Hardy doing Samuel Beckett, with this latter-day Vladimir and Estragon waiting for "what's-is-name" in an apocalyptic landscape hauntingly captured by the director of photography, James Mather. While the subject matter may appear unpromising, Lenny Abrahamson's surprisingly affecting film manages to provoke both tears and laughter as our hapless anti-heroes blunder from one near-existential crisis to another, typified by a surreal encounter with a Bulgarian immigrant who demands to know "Why am I here - why the fuck are you here?"

Beautifully staged moments of visual and verbal comedy rub against bleak and tender fragments of awful reality, balancing humour with something that hints at horror. Crucially, despite a genuine empathy for its titular characters, Adam and Paul never underplays the nihilistic obsessions of addiction. The film depicts the blundered mugging of a handicapped young man in all its pitiful meanness, and admits in its evocative final shot that heroin runs thicker than blood. Add to this a lyrical musical accompaniment by Stephen Rennicks, which occasionally recalls the strains of Withnail and I, and Adam and Paul emerges as an unexpected treat. Having already become a low-budget hit in its native country, this offbeat oddity deserves to find a welcoming home here in Britain.