The first Sin City deserves credit for the “visionary” and medium-bending comic book visuals that are often attributed to Zack Snyder. Whereas 300 was like being trapped in an airless video game cinematic while gasping for oxygen, the earlier Sin City was stylish enough in its pulp noir to pass off as pseudo-artsy and wholly-entertaining B-level sleaze. It sure ain’t the noir of Dashiell Hammett or Billy Wilder, but it could have easily worked as a cheapie from poverty row that had been liberated from the constraints of 1940s censorship and good taste. In short, Sin City played as if Frank Miller found crumpled pages on Mickey Spillane’s bedroom floor, jettisoned for being too absurd, and then he added ninja throwing stars to them.
Sadly, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For isn’t quite that. While punctuated with intermittent splatters of brilliance and fun, mostly from its titular (very titular) title, the sequel is simultaneously marred by the limp self-parody that has become present in all of director Robert Rodriguez’s work in the intervening decade. Thus your level of enjoyment will be directly proportional to your ability to take the banal beatings in order to get to the lurid payoffs of bullets, booze, and broads.
Like the first film, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is an anthology of several overlapping, nonlinear storylines. However, other than a brief (and misplaced) prologue starring a resuscitated Mickey Rourke as Marv on a dizzying rampage of comic book carnage, most of the film’s plots were written by Frank Miller exclusively for the big screen. These include Joseph Gordon-Levitt coming the closest to capturing the appeal of a genuine noir hero named Johnny, a cocksure gambler who is on a hot-streak when he decides to play cards with the most powerful man in Sin City (Powers Boothe), and a returning Jessica Alba as Nancy, the stripper who once had a heart of gold but now feels only arsenic running through her veins after the death of her deified Det. Hartigan (Bruce Willis) from the last movie. Both stories feel abbreviated and somewhat sloppy, but any time a smoke filled saloon is ventilated by Gordon-Levitt trading sinister words with Boothe, playing Senator Roarke like he’s Mr. Mitchum Goes to Washington, these wraparound plots become minacious fun.
The real showstopper, however, is the one major narrative thread extracted from a Miller graphic novel, “A Dame to Kill For,” and is featured uninterrupted in the center of the movie’s 100-minute running time. Believably starring Eva Green as that nominal dame, she plays the categorical femme fatale with her husky American accent, infinite supply of lit cigarettes in hand, and piercing green eyes. Indeed, the Sin City rulebook of no-color is all but dropped for her emerald stares, blue trench coat, and blood-red lipstick.
This doll announces doom so loudly that the dive bars and crummy private eye offices she enters should crumble from the echoing reverberations. It’s a wonder that Dwight, Josh Brolin’s anti-hero gumshoe, doesn’t run for the hills as soon as he sees her. But like apparently all men in this yarn, the ex-flame gets in his head too easily with stories about her abusive, older, and rich husband, who is in need of getting gone. Obviously meant to be Miller’s Double Indemnity and Out of the Past rolled up into one, there is a great (if familiar) passion play in here, but like so much of Miller’s recent work, it gets drowned out by fetishistic machismo from supporting players Dennis Haysbert and Mickey Rourke (again), as well as superfluous tangents about the prostitutes of Old Town, populated by real actresses like Rosario Dawson and Juno Temple trying to make the most out of Miller’s perviest inventions.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is flimsier in its narrative configuration than the two simple plot threads and one wraparound that defined the first movie, but it is still Rodriguez’s liveliest and most coherently entertaining effort since that 2005 film. Most of that is due to the aforementioned “Dame” storyline straight from the graphic novels, but even it is subject to the limitations of both the film and the source material.
Green and Brolin do solid work as the fatale and her stooge while they’re surrounded by supporting characters that populate Miller’s bleak vision with a suffocating chokehold of corruption in the forms of Ray Liotta, Christopher Meloni, and a very welcome Christopher Lloyd. Yet, instead of savoring the cool drag of Green’s light, which is beckoning them all to Hell, the movie gets bogged down in cartoon violence and vice that was once giddy nine years ago, but now falls fairly flat. The genre elements of bestial doom in men cannot be explored, because the movie is rushing to the next scene where a 13-year-old boy’s fantasy of a ninja-prostitute (Jamie Chung) is cutting off five heads at once.
Green herself is unsurprisingly superb in the role of Ava Lord, but much like her appearance in this year’s other Frank Miller sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, it is akin to trapping a tiger shark in a fish bowl, complete with adolescent male gawking through the glass at her cornucopia of nudity that’s so gratuitous even HBO producers may blush. This is an actress who could truly play an all-time fatale, but in a movie that’s more interested in her bust-size, it feels like a missed opportunity.
Gordon-Levitt is the other smoking gun of talent in the movie, and one that is less encumbered since Miller has no interest in seeing him with his clothes off for most of his screen time. As such, Gordon-Levitt gets to portray the archetypal wiseguy that gets in way over his head after he intentionally humiliates a corrupt politician at a game of cards. While Boothe’s revenge is not particularly inspired, the seething hatred between him and Gordon-Levitt is, giving the film a touch of sincere, malicious emotion.
Alba’s storyline that features her also going up against Boothe’s Senator Roark is less successful. While Alba was a breakout last time as the dewy-eyed goddess who danced on poles with the absurd innocence of a schoolgirl, she is now asked to become the hero of her own story after Willis’ masculine protector is gone. She begins the subplot as a mean drunk and ends it as an avenging murderess. Possibly because it’s the final story of the film, Alba’s scenes feel obligatory, but it’s also in part because Miller and Rodriguez have never had strong female leads in their work, and equally because pathos is not Alba’s strong suit. Luckily, Rourke’s Marv shows up one more time to help enliven the final bloodbath by carving up many more soon-to-be corpses.
The first Sin City had the advantage of novelty on its side, but it also created a dynamic world filled with violence, corruption, and gonzo mayhem. It even found such a stilted beauty in its hypnotic visuals that it fooled Cannes into thinking it was high art when it got nominated for the Palme d’Or. Moments of that seductive cynicism permeate its belated sequel like whiffs of tobacco vapor immortalized through black and white photography. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is filled with hardboiled dialogue from men whose shells cracked long ago, such as when Brolin remarks, “I was awakened by the pavement coming up to give me a big wet kiss.”
And still, the world feels smaller and a lot less inviting this go-round. Before, you could believe Marv’s words that “you walk down the right back alley in Sin City, and you can find anything.” But these days, you’ll already know what to expect: more of the same, except less. For some that may still be enough to get intoxicated on.