'Sin City: A Dame to Kill For' is an overly familiar, overly somber follow-up
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For The Weinstein Company
Director: Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller
Screenplay: Frank Miller, based on his graphic novels
Starring: Eva Green, Mickey Rourke, Josh Brolin, Jessica Alba, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Powers Boothe, Rosario Dawson, Dennis Haysbert, Christopher Meloni and Bruce Willis
Rated R / 1 hour, 42 minutes
August 22, 2014
(out of four)
In retrospect, it's a small miracle that 2005's Sin City was as good as it was. For proof, look no further than Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, which is fundamentally identical, yet somehow gets wrong everything its predecessor did right. It is charmless, humorless, affectless, warmed-over noir that goes through all the familiar motions without ever discovering a point.
That it becomes so dreadfully monotonous as quickly as it does only serves to remind us how gracefully the original avoided doing so. Sin City constantly shifted tone, finding little grace notes and nuances amidst the rigid affectation of its visual style and attitude. Most of all, it was so driven by wit - with Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller exploiting the hard-boiled for its absurd and grotesque value. But A Dame to Kill For has nothing nearly as funny as, say, the specter of Benicio del Toro's nearly decapitated head bobbing up and down atop a split-open neck as it sardonically taunts Clive Owen, nor anything as surreally bizarre as the Yellow Bastard, or Elijah Wood's silent, grinning cannibal.
No, the new film - a hybrid sequel/prequel - plays it right down the middle, going strictly for the most obvious and brutal noir trademarks, and doing it all with a straight face. Everyone's just scowling the whole time and no one's having any fun, with few exceptions. But it was the levity that actually made Sin City work. The characters were in on the joke. The way it balanced the savagery of Miller's vision with streaks of absurdity, satire and slapstick is the very thing that prevented it from becoming redundant.
A Dame to Kill For ignores all those lessons. It keeps hitting the same beats over and over again. It's like seeing a magician show you the same trick for an entire performance, or a band that only plays one song.
It would be easy to make the argument that the tepid response to the film (from myself and most others) is largely the result of familiarity - that the novelty we saw in 2005 has simply worn off. Maybe there's a kernel of truth to that - there are certainly some things that should remain unique, and which become diluted with repetition - but I don't think this movie would have come across much better even if the original had never been made. While Sin City straddled the line between horrific and comedic, the follow-up is discouragingly one-note. It almost makes the former's success seem like an accident.
Even the visuals - despite the same basic approach - strike the wrong tone. Before, the way the sporadic uses of color splashed on top of the stark black-and-white reflected the savage/comic tone. It was the spice that gave the whole thing its flavor. But here, with all the wit and eccentricity stripped away, the colors no longer seem like bold emotional or atmospheric statements, but like pure affectations. It's as if Robert Rodriguez knew there was some reason for the bursts of often-anachronistic colors, but he just couldn't quite put his finger on it.
There are exceptions to this, notably in the way Eva Green is shot - the deep red of her lipstick, the sharp green of her eyes, the aggressive blue of her dress as she makes her entrance, all pointedly effective. Indeed, everything about Green and her storyline - which gives the film its title - is more confidently conceived than the rest. A lot of that is owed to Green's performance, a miraculous display of poisonousness, vulnerability and self-possessed sexuality. I don't think it's entirely my weakness for Green in general when I say that the film visually comes alive mostly only when she's on screen. The image of Ava Lord (Green) silhouetted nude against a towering full moon is the film's best.
Ava is the central femme fatale (and there was never any doubt that Green would be a natural for the role), seducing any man in her path, including Dwight (Josh Brolin, playing the pre-surgery version of the character played by Clive Owen in 2005) - who keeps falling for her deceptions and promises even when he knows he shouldn't, and who in this unfortunate story is just one of several means to a bloody and lucrative end. (All the goods are front-loaded into this story, as the film's best returning character - Mickey Rourke's Marv - finds a central role in Dwight's tale of seduction and retribution.)
The film's other two stories continue the previous film's theme of the nasty legacies handed down by fathers or father figures (i.e. Powers Boothe's black-hearted Senator Rourke and his twisted, evil son; or Kevin the serial killer, the Cardinal's pet parishioner and accomplice). In this world, even those who are well-intentioned (i.e. Bruce Willis' tortured, noble cop John Hartigan) sow the seeds of corruption and hatred just like the more overtly sinister men in power. A Dame to Kill For picks up with that narrative, with Hartigan's death having left Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), a bitter, alcoholic, self-hating, vengeance-seeking shell of her former self, with aims on putting a bullet in Roark's head once and for all. Meanwhile, one of Roark's (apparently numerous) bastard sons comes calling in the form of Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hotshot gambler on an apparently lifelong lucky streak, who has (foolish) designs on humiliating the old man who abandoned him.
But both stories are half-baked and redundant. What is salvaged in the movie is mostly in the performances - Green, Gordon-Levitt, Boothe, Brolin. Other roles aren't such a tight fit. The thing about noir - in this case, aggressively stylized noir - is that it's a second language. If you'll forgive the comparison, we've all seen Shakespeare plays or movies where you can tell who really knows how to speak Shakespeare and who doesn't. You can say the same of film noir in general, and the Sin City series in particular. Some are naturals, and some seem woefully out of place. (In fairness, this was even true of the previous film.) Let's just say I feel bad for Christopher Meloni. Among others.
But I digress. The nine-year wait between Sin City entries has gotten a lot of attention, and sapped interest in the process - especially since the sequel has been rumored since the day the first movie came out. In the intervening years, two stars of the original died, and three roles were recast. But a lot more seems to have gotten lost along the way. What was, a decade ago, a giddy reappraisal of cinematic artifice and genre pastiche is now, years later, a rote imitation of itself. What kind of a movie is A Dame to Kill For? If you'll allow me to borrow a phrase, it's just like any other Frank Miller movie, only more so. In this case, that's not such a good thing.