Sin City: The Hard, Complete Timeline

How do the timelines of Sin City and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For line up? We try to make sense of the nonlinear...

Long before Zack Snyder got the idea to do a near panel-for-panel recreation of a Frank Miller comic book, Robert Rodriguez beat him there by two years with Sin City and made a more mesmerizing and impressive film to boot. And while it took 10 years, we eventually got a sequel… that was also was a bit of a prequel. In fact, it is hard to place whether Sin City: A Dame to Kill For either began or ended the 2005 cult classic’s story.

Perhaps like 2014’s 300: Rise of an Empire, the answer is a little bit of both. Given the twisty anthological plotting of both films, it can be quite a knotty narrative to unwrap with this overarching double feature. So much so that with all the crossovers and recasting, it’s difficult to tell where the narrative has been sly and where there has been an even more slyly placed continuity error.

Well, we’re here to give you a comprehensive understanding about the cinematic anthology of (Ba)Sin City…

That Yellow Bastard Part 1

Considering the eight-year gap that spans Nancy Callahan’s entire adolescence, this is the easiest one to place. Set at a time when young Nancy is but a child in creepy Roark Junior’s eye, the young girl has been kidnapped by the nasty son of a senator for a “party.” Luckily for her, nobody told Junior that John Hartigan was invited.

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Despite it being his last day on the police force, and with a bum ticker to boot, Hartigan (Bruce Willis) proves he is worth a damn when he unarms Junior of his weapons (both of them) and saves a young girl’s life. Unfortunately for Hartigan, being shot nearly half a dozen times by his partner Bob (Michael Madsen) is only the beginning of his torment. Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) has revenge for his comatose son when he fixes John Hartigan’s heart up real good so that he can take the rap for his son’s pedophilic tendencies and get locked away for the rest of his life. Or so, Roark and Hartigan both thought…

That Yellow Bastard Part 2

Yep, despite the eight-year gap and placing this portion of the story as the climax of the 2005 Sin City film, it would appear that this narrative is the next immediate event to occur in the Sin City mythos. This can be deduced for several reasons, but most notably because of the appearance of old Bob, who shows up early in this second half of “That Yellow Bastard” and will appear again in the next adventure in such a way that ensures this came first.

read more: Glass Ending Explained

Indeed, Bob is the guy that takes Hartigan back into Basin City after his stint in prison, which would have continued indefinitely if he hadn’t admitted to the child rapist charges he’d been accused of. The reason? He had to protect Nancy, who had been writing to him under a pseudonym for the intervening near-decade… until she wasn’t. It’s of course a trap, and Nancy is fine (very fine) until a released Hartigan leads the titular Yellow Bastard right to her. Turning out to be a genetically mutated Junior (Nick Stahl), who went head-to-toe blonde in order to regain his virility, the pervert discovers along with the hero cop a shocking truth: the daughter Hartigan always wanted is one that he will definitely try to resist wanting any further, because Nancy has grown up to be Jessica Alba.

In a game of vengeance and snow-filled creepiness, Hartigan saves Nancy first from Junior when he puts the Yellow Bastard in the ground permanently, and then from his undoubtedly enraged senator daddy when Hartigan puts a bullet in his own head. Au revoir, Nancy.

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A Dame to Kill For

Now it’s time to say hello to the two most prolific protagonists in the Sin City oeuvre: Dwight and Marv. While Marv, who served as the centerpiece for the first ever Sin City graphic novel, as well as the first complete story of the 2005 film, appears in nearly every Frank Miller neo-noir (including “That Yellow Bastard”), Dwight McCarthy has been the lead character in more of them. And it begins here, chronologically speaking, with “A Dame to Kill For.”

Watch Sin City: A Dame to Kill For on Amazon

As the subtitle of this past weekend’s sequel, it picks up on Dwight pre-plastic surgery when he looks an awful lot like Josh Brolin. A down-and-out sleazy gumshoe detective with a soft spot for the ladies, he gets lured into an even more dangerous world by an old flame that’s pure evil and sex (is there really any other kind in noir?): Ava Lord. Becoming her patsy for offing her sweet, rich husband, Dwight must join forces with Marv and Old Town vixen head honcho Gail (Rosario Dawson) to survive the police manhunt. This leads to him getting a Dark Passage styled plastic surgery, which depending on the Sin City movie, may or may not cause him to look like Clive Owen. It also helpfully places this before all the following stories given Dwight’s changed appearance.

And thanks to Bob, we know it takes place after both volumes of “That Yellow Bastard,” because it is hard for Bob to pick up Hartigan from prison if his new partner, Mort, has already put a bullet in his eye. Don’t let Bob’s own facelift from Michael Madsen to Jeremy Piven fool you, it’s the same character, death and all.

The Long Bad Night

Continuing the narrative introduction of plot threads from Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is the first of two original stories from Frank Miller for the pre-sequel: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “The Long Bad Night.” Its placement is a little trickier because other than cameos by Nancy Callahan and Marv, it features none of the other Sin City protagonists in a starring role. However, the clue is Marv’s appearance himself. Considering that Marv is still drooling over Nancy like a barfly at the beginning of this story, “The Hard Goodbye” could not have occurred yet (more on that later). But since Hartigan has been dead for four years, it obviously takes place after “The Yellow Bastard.”

read more: Robert Rodriguez Explains From Dusk Till Dawn Ending

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While the Nancy from this story being the same one from her non Yellow-appearances in the 2005 Sin City seems a bit dubious, this is logically where the next story goes. So as Nancy still grieves the death of John Hartigan, lacking the strength to kill Roark despite his nightly poker games in her strip club dive, Roark’s own bastard son in the form of gambler Johnny (Gordon-Levitt) makes his big move in disgracing the old man in a game of cards with all the city’s bigwigs watching. As a price, Johnny has his card hand crippled, his leg shot, and his best girl beheaded. But that doesn’t stop him from coming back the next night, which obviously takes place prior to the following story since Sen. Roark was very much alive when he dealt his bastard son a bullet and his brains across the poker table.

Still, Roark lost at cards to the boy. Twice.

Nancy’s Last Dance

Don’t let the title fool you; this is clearly not Nancy’s last dance even if it feels like the character has cracked. Picking up within no more than a few months of “The Long Bad Night,” Nancy Callahan gets her revenge for Hartigan martyring his skull onto a freshly fallen snow. All drunk and self-hating, Nancy mangles first her hair and then her face, seemingly ending her career as saloon Sally’s star exotic dancer. But it does rope in a still very Nancy-obsessed Marv into helping her kill Senator Roark.

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While Hartigan still might have a point that Roark would have known it was he who killed legitimate son Junior, yellow junk and all, it seems Roark is not so untouchable if you have an indestructible tank like Marv going in first to take all the fire. Somewhat dampening Hartigan’s sacrifice, it does make Nancy a much more dynamic character when it is she (with the help of Hartigan’s ghost) that allows Sen. Roark to be reunited with that Yellow Bastard in an undoubtedly black and white Hell.

Nancy walks off into the night bitter and broken, “soiled by this rotten town.” Still, Hartigan’s death has been avenged and the Roarks have been punished. She has had her last dance.

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The Hard Goodbye Part 1

Or has she? Inexplicably, given Nancy’s character arc, she is back to smiling all doe-eyed with an unscarred face on the stage at Sally’s. However, by necessity this must take place after “Nancy’s Last Dance,” since it really marks the beginning of Marv’s final rodeo. The original Sin City graphic novel is about how a knuckle-dragging loser like Mickey Rourke’s Marv finds his purpose in life when he is blessed with a night of sexual passion for the first time ever by a pitying angel. Actually she is a whore name Goldie who latched onto him for protection, but it doesn’t matter none.

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After Goldie is murdered by the devious serial killer Kevin (Elijah Wood), a cannibal protected by the clergy leading all the way to Basin City’s Cardinal Patrick Roark (the senator’s brother), it is a bloodbath of corpses that Marv leaves in his wake all in the name of a dead hooker.

However, this paterfamilias Sin City story, which kicked off the 2005 film in earnest too, also will have to mark its ending. Sure the film tells “The Hard Goodbye” in one uninterrupted chunk, but Marv spent months by his own admission on death row after the death of Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer). And that is enough time for…

The Big Fat Kill

“The Big Fat Kill” marks the second time Dwight gets to lead a Sin City story, but it is the first time he appeared on film, played by Clive Owen in a post-plastic surgery storyline. With his new face, he is back to helping women that really need it, such as Brittany Murphy’s Shellie, whose ex-boyfriend is the very married and very corrupt Det. Lt. Jack Rafferty, aka Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro). As crooked as the night is long in this town, Jackie Boy decides when he can’t rough up Shellie, he’ll settle with murdering a prostitute, but he picks the wrong neighborhood to do it in.

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After the whores of Old Town separate Jackie Boy from his head, it is up to Dwight to dispose of it before the cops find out. But the traitor in their midst is the reason it must come after the majority of “The Hard Goodbye.” Becky, the initially threatened prostitute, with Alexis Bledel’s purely virtuous eyes, turns out to be a rat since she doesn’t want mom to find out she’s a hooker. She tells the mafia about Jackie Boy’s death, leading to a street war and her ousting from the Old Town prostitute ring, even though she appears as a central figure in the heart of it during “The Hard Goodbye” when Marv finds out about Goldie’s past.

The Customer Is Always Right Part 2

This leads directly to Becky’s comeuppance when (likely) Gail sends “the Salesman” after her. Played with boundless empathy and understanding by Josh Hartnett, he is all-soothing sweet words until he plugs you, as we know from “The Customer is Always Right Part 1.” And this epilogue to the 2005 film shows him return to ominously enter Becky’s life likely the day after “The Big Fat Kill” since she is leaving the hospital following her flesh wound from the previous story. And she is talking to that ever-concerned mom on a cell phone when he offers her a cigarette.

read more: The Big Sleep – Proof Plot Doesn’t Matter

“I love you too, Mom,” Becky says nervously before hanging up. Clearly she has to go.

The Hard Goodbye Part 2

More an epilogue unto itself than a second half, this conclusion to “The Hard Goodbye” showcases the end of Frank Miller’s Sin City vision.

Given a “pretty good steak” and a brew to boot, Marv is strapped into an electric chair by the corrupt cops for killing a cannibal-protecting cardinal. But it’s all-good, as another priest prays for his soul. “I haven’t got all night,” Marv cracks before they fill his body with lightning. For Goldie though, it was worth it.

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Just Another Saturday Night

This prologue to Sin City: A Dame to Kill For helps underline how both films’ short story prologues are fairly standalone. Other than starring a living and complacent Marv, thus setting it before the first part of “The Hard Goodbye” and everything afterwards, there is nothing to indicate where else it could fit into the timeline. It very well could take place before the first part of “The Yellow Bastard.” In it, Marv makes short work of some snobby Ivy League kids who pick on the poor for sport. He picks back so hard that they cease to breathe.

The Customer is Always Right Part 1

This prologue to the original Sin City only earns its nominal “Part 1” status because it appears as the first of two bookends featuring Hartnett’s Salesman cashing the contract checks on fleeing dames. It very well could happen after he visits Becky in that elevator during the Sin City epilogue and might even be after Marv takes a seat on Old Sparky. Since it is just the Salesman soothing and then silencing a terrified woman during a dark night in Basin City, there is no indication where it takes place in the timeline.

The Mistakes

The Rough Arc of Nancy

Of course, when there is a nine-year gap between films and stories that were written exclusively for the big screen, there will be a few incongruities. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy either movie on its own, but here are a few of the missteps, beginning with Nancy.

We know “That Yellow Bastard” happens in full before the other two main stories of the 2005 flick, “The Hard Goodbye” and “The Big Fat Kill.” But Nancy appears relatively happy and resilient after Hartigan’s death in “The Hard Goodbye.” The new material of “The Long Bad Night” and “Nancy’s Last Dance” make that much more difficult to accept, especially since “Nancy’s Last Dance” ends with Nancy seeming to give up her lifestyle as an exotic dancer, starting with the scarring of her angelic face when she carves it up with a broken mirror.

The result gets Marv to help her kill Roark, but she seems to hate being a stripper by the end of the story and hates this city. Hardly the bubbly personality who is still working the stage in “The Hard Goodbye,” where she is noticeably younger than in her appearances in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

Marv and the Double Roark Goodbye

In Sin City, Mickey Rourke’s Marv is stunned to hear that the Roark family is caught up in something so twisted as the cannibalistic murders of Kevin. Further, he struggles wrapping his head around the concept of killing Cardinal Patrick Roark, “The most powerful man in Sin City,” over the death of a prostitute. It gives him great pleasure…except he’s already helped kill a Roark that was a sitting U.S. senator according to “Nancy’s Last Dance,” something he neither thinks about nor notices in “The Hard Goodbye.”

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In addition when he visits Nancy in “The Hard Goodbye,” he thinks about how he saved her from some rowdy frat boys a few years back, hence their kinship. This is quite different than killing a U.S. senator, which he knew he was doing in “Nancy’s Last Dance” since she mentioned the word “Roark.”

Manute Dies Twice

It is understandable, if tragic, that Michael Clarke Duncan had to be recast in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For with Dennis Haysbert. However, Manute is clearly alive and well in “The Big Fat Kill” when Clive Owen’s Dwight sends him to the grave. Yet, in the chronologically earlier “A Dame to Kill For,” we see Josh Brolin’s Dwight also witness Manute’s demise: this time at the hands of Ava Lord (Eva Green) who won’t let anyone kill her man, but her.

Did Manute have a twin brother with the same eye injury that we didn’t know about?

Do you know of any more inconsistencies in the timeline? Disagree with our order of things? Let us know in the comment section below!

Also a special thanks to commenter and longtime reader Shawn Thompson for suggesting this feature to us!

This article first ran in 2015.

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David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.