SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR
What a beautiful bore.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller
Written by Frank Miller, in case you couldn't tell
With Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Johnny), Powers Booth (Senator Roarke), Josh Brolin (Dwight), Rosario Dawson (Gail), Mickey Rourke (Marv), Jessica Alba (Nancy), Bruce Willis (Hartigan), and Eva Green (Frank Miller's weltamschauung)
Spoiler alert: moderate
I was set to award the new Sin City film the superlative of entirely adequate, but then I realized—in disbelief—that it was only two shades over 100 minutes long. This is approximately an hour shorter than I thought it must have been, and that just can't be a good sign. Contrast Transformers: Age of Extinction, which feels every second of 165 minutes, but at least has the decency to be 165 minutes.
Like its predecessor, the sequel is an anthology film: a collection of nasty super-noirs tied together in the first instance by the setting and characters of Basin City—and, more cohesively, by the overwhelming aesthetic Robert Rodriguez developed in emulation of Miller's grotesquely gorgeous black-and-white artwork. The backbone of this anthology is the titular "Dame" (and that's why I'll be referring to the film entire as Sin City 2). "Dame" is the longest of the stories, and also the dullest and the most offensive. They're all, of course, at least mildly offensive.
However, if you're only just now getting offended by Frank Miller's descent into madness, you obviously haven't been paying attention for the better part of twenty Goddamned years, Batman. I lost my capacity to be outraged or even disappointed by Miller years ago. His earlier, technically superb work remains canonical, but it catastrophically halts in late 2001. It's not coincidental; though he doesn't couch it in such stark terms, the man himself credits America's tragedy for knocking the very last hinges off his doorframe. It is therefore best to attempt to enjoy Miller's 21st century output as demented, unintentional self-parody—or just ignore it altogether.
The Sin City comics fall into Miller's phase of formalist genius and comparative sanity; but they already anticipate his ecstatic slide into the full, unironic embrace of his favorite themes. There's the anarcho-libertarian savagery, presented as a fully-formed political philosophy. There's the fantastic, terror-fueled misogyny, informing his female characters' every word and deed. And, increasingly, there's the complete inability to compose dialogue that even the most cartoonishly hardboiled human might conceivably utter aloud. (But, at least, they weren't racist, too.)
...Are Asians a race?
The point is that Basin City offered a fictional universe where Miller's id could romp free: a hyperexpressionist, essentially magical-realist hellhole that is so degraded—so fallen—that Miller's ideological peccadilloes aren't intrusive elements. After all, they're built into its very foundations.
Part a conservative's nightmare of New York in the 1980s, part actual Las Vegas in the 1930s, part bona fide Sodom and Gamorrah, but mostly a freebase form of every noir ever made about every underbelly of every town a Hollywood set ever pretended to be, Sin City was a place where Frank Miller could make sense of Frank Miller. It remains about the only place left where we can make any sense of him, too. The cinematic result of all this art therapy was 2005's original Sin City. I'd really hesitate to call it great—but, dang it, it was kind of great, wasn't it? And, just as important, it was and it remained like nothing else on the screen.
Well, does anyone insist on counting The Spirit?
Now comes something very much like Sin City, and in this respect its sequel is worthy. Sadly, lacking the brutal urgency that drove its predecessor's stylistic exercise, it really is just self-parody—and only enjoyable, on any level, in fits and starts.
Discounting a brief prologue, there are three stories to be found in this second outing. I've already mentioned "Dame"; there's also "The Long Hard Night," which is good, and "Nancy's Last Dance," which is the worst of all of them (but is shorter than "Dame").
"Night" features the estimable Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose smug gambler Johnny runs afoul of one of the ubiquitous Roarkes that rule Basin City like feudal chiefs. This one is the Senator, father of the yellow fellow from the first film; he is played with mighty evil by Powers Boothe. They engage in a high-stakes game of poker with one another, though why anyone would agree to gamble with Roarke is left unexplained—beating him, no matter how fairly or squarely, always results in a session of vicious torture at the hands of the world's sorest loser's hired goons. This seems to be the set-up for a standard revenge tale; interestingly, it both is and it isn't. Frustratingly, you get to wait
"Dance" is the follow-up to "That Yellow Bastard," and relates the continuing adventures of the stripper who never takes off her clothes, Nancy Callahan. She is being haunted by her memory of Hartigan, and the debt she thinks she owes him. (You may remember that he saved her from being raped to death by a Roarke when she was a child; then again when she was an adult; and then killed himself to spare her further aggression from the Roarke family.) This also seems to be the set-up for a standard revenge tale; very uninterestingly, it is. The only hook is the incestuous vibe, but this was already well-mapped by the first film. Overall, "Nancy's Last Dance" sucks, but don't blame it all on Jessica Alba: Marv's back too.
And does he do the exact same shit, like wrestle a car, to decisively diminished returns? You bet!
In Sin City 2, Marv has graduated from a dweller upon the fringe to being the center of the whole universe. He was the tanklike antihero of the original Sin City comic, and his "Hard Goodbye" was the standout of the first Sin City's anthology. He now becomes a chronologically confusing, narratively inorganic, dramatically destructive, eminently unwanted, yet aggravatingly omnipresent factor in this sequel/prequel/sidequel thing. It makes Basin City seem even smaller than it already did; it turns Mickey Rourke's hardcase-headcase performance into quipping tedium, undermining the haunted, doomed, promethean figure we once knew.
Instinctively, you will blame George Lucas, though you know this is unfair.
And speaking of Marv, let's return to "A Dame to Kill For," the main vein of Sin City 2, in both length and breadth. Marv is doing double sidekick duty—and doubling our impatience with his existence—as the partner-in-vengeance of yet another refugee from the first film. "Dame" is a prequel to "The Big Fat Kill," by far the weakest segment from Sin City. (In fairness to Miller, "Kill" was published after "Dame.")
Either way, let's get reacquainted with Dwight, still wearing his first face—that of Thanos himself, Josh Brolin. This is the tale of how he came to need the transplant. Yet an air of mystery remains: how did a movie that could needlessly splurge on Bruce Willis fail to acquire Clive Owen for five crucial post-surgery minutes?
The story of how Dwight's face got unfucked is mere incident, though; "A Dame to Kill For" exists to take us upon a voyage deep into Frank Miller's brain. There we find Ava Lord, Miller's archetype for Bad Women/All Women. I doubt Miller speaks Hebrew but I bet he's read a Bible, and in any event, the name is almost too on-point. She is embodied here by Eva Green—who, unlike Ms. Alba, seems to accept a pay cut if she's promised a topless scene in any given film. We discover now, in her second Frank Miller joint, why she did not light out for the outrageously camp in 300: Rise of an Empire: she's just not very good at it. Again, I'm left to wish that Charlize Theron would deign to be in more of these stupid things. Green takes on a character that is, essentially, a complete joke, but she isn't very funny at all. This denigrates her existence as a physical object, however, which is tantamount to missing the point.
Ava's love was lost to Dwight years ago because women are, after all, whores; but now she comes screaming back into his life in a vividly blue dress, begging for help. It turns out Miller's opinion of men is even lower than his opinion of women. Since Dwight is just a mobile reproductive system, possessed of rippling muscles but only a vestigial brain, he is pulled right back into the old honeypot. Rather keeping with this theme, Dwight may take a beating for even talking to her, but because this is Sin City, prodigious internal bleeding is no impediment to a fully-functional erection and the ridiculous pop art softcore sex that such a superhuman hard-on permits. Then plot events occur, and they need not have been numbing and obvious and in many cases unnecessary and pointless, but they were, suggesting that the main thrust of the story really is all that nudity. Indeed, it's never a sure thing the only goal of "A Dame to Kill For" is not simply to render a naked Eva Green in the most striking manner cameras and CGI can accomplish.
You should expect—actually, you ought to demand—copious amounts of sex and violence from any Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller collaboration. The violence, throughout the film, is actually of a dreadfully boring sort. A far cry from its progenitor, exactly three shots manage to genuinely, viscerally thrill. One is Dwight being thrown from a car, which manages to well-evoke gravity; another involves a simple bullet to the head. (Many scenes involve bullets to all sorts of body parts, naturally, but it's only the one that's in any sense worthwhile.)
Nevertheless, the best thing about Sin City 2 really does remain the next-best thing about Sin City—its style. And the highest example of its style is, pretty much objectively, Eva Green emerging nude from the steam of a jacuzzi. The second through tenth highest examples would also involve the words "Eva Green" and "nude." Though she's always so statuesque and posed it's not even especially hot, the computer-assisted cinematography never fails to make her look outright extraordinary:
It's very annoying, because these images far exceed adequate, and to whatever lesser degree you feel is appropriate, this judgment applies to vast stretches of a largely exquisite picture.
But such faint praise precisely summarizes the experience of Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. It doesn't send the blood to any of the right places: it is a very pretty thing to look at while you feel practically nothing.