Film Review: Sin City: A Dame to Kill ForNeither significantly better nor worse than its predecessor, the belated <i>Sin City</i> sequel is more of a repeat, rather than a continuation, of the original.
Like a well-preserved ancient-world artifact unearthed during an archeological expedition, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For arrives on screens almost a full decade after its 2005 predecessor briefly became a pop-culture phenomenon. But watching the film, it feels like no time has passed at all. That's because returning directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller—the celebrated comic-book writer/artist whose graphic novels serve as the literal storyboards for the films—unerringly replicate the eye-catching visual style that nabbed the first Sin City so much attention, from the inky black-and-white cinematography (punctuated by occasional splashes of color) to the graphic displays of ultra-violence. It's the same movie Miller and Rodriguez would have made back in 2006 or 2007, with few concessions to how they may have changed as artists or how the world may have changed around them.
And, make no mistake, the world has significantly changed, at least in regards to what contemporary audiences want from comic-book cinema. Ten years ago, Sin City and Zack Snyder's 300—also adapted from a Miller comic—departed from the genre's template of highly personalized directorial visions of classic heroes (think Tim Burton's Expressionistic Batman, Bryan Singer's leather-clad X-Men or Ang Lee's sorrowful Hulk) in favor of faithfully and floridly replicating what was drawn on the page. Rodriguez and Snyder weren't interested in adapting their respective Miller comics so much as literally bringing them to life, which at the time was a relief to geek masses burned by the questionable visions behind movies like Catwoman and Daredevil.
But the advent of Christopher Nolan's gritty, grounded Dark Knight trilogy followed by the flowering of the bright, colorful Marvel Cinematic Universe made it once again okay for directors to go off-book when dramatizing the exploits of a costume-clad avenger. Snyder's own rigidly faithful 2009 version of Alan Moore's Watchmen further illustrated the creative and commercial limitations of the Sin City/300 approach, and by the time Man of Steel rolled around, he was visibly working in a more Nolanesque vein. Rodriguez and Miller have refused to make a similar compromise, which means A Dame to Kill For recreates the experience of watching the original…for better and for worse.
Certainly the chief pleasure of the first Sin City—that richly stylized, heavily digitized noir photography—works its magic again here, with Rodriguez and Miller's 3D camera plunging into the 2D world glimpsed in the comics. Once again, we're back in Basin City, a nightmarish urban hellhole that's located somewhere between the Manhattan of The Naked City and the Manhattan of The Warriors. Many familiar faces, including a few who met their makers in the previous installment, are still wandering the spottily lit streets, from lovable psycho Marv (Mickey Rourke) and the gold-hearted stripper he watches over, Nancy (Jessica Alba), to unlucky-in-love hoodlum Dwight (Josh Brolin, assuming a role originated by Clive Owen) and the bloodthirsty boss of the place, Senator Roark (Powers Boothe).
The quartet of stories that comprise A Dame to Kill For take place both before and after the events of the previous movie and display the same tone of dime-store cynicism. Hence, Nancy mourns her beloved protector Hartigan (Bruce Willis, who contributes a ghostly cameo), but can't bring herself to confront the man responsible for his demise, while a fuzzy-headed Marv works out his aggression on a gang of young punks who seem to know more about him than he does. Elsewhere, in the film's centerpiece, Dwight falls under the spell of old flame Ava (Eva Green, whose ability to mix shameless exhibitionism with ferocious intensity makes her an ideal Miller leading lady—something she also proved in this year's 300 sequel, Rise of an Empire), only to discover that she's actually setting him up for a hard, painful fall. And finally, in the film's best storyline (and, along with the Nancy tale, one of two that Miller wrote especially for the movie), a handsome gambler (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tries his luck in Sin City, but learns too late that it's a place where folks remember you by how you died rather than how you lived.
Gordon-Levitt's segment handily encapsulates the seedy kick Sin City can provide when it's firing on all cylinders. Besides his classic movie-star looks, the actor adeptly handles Miller's lumpy pieces of hardboiled prose and challenges his co-stars to bring some human emotion to this cartoon landscape. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Nancy storyline, led by Alba's robotic performance, speaks to all that is ugly and obnoxious about the series, whether it's the winking misogyny disguised as empowerment or its reliance on casual violence as a narrative crutch. For what it's worth, the Dwight material lands somewhere in the middle; Brolin brings nothing to the table beyond a sneer and Ava is a risible character on paper, but Green's sexpot glamour proves hard to resist and the directors reserve some of their most dynamic images for this storyline, most notably an otherworldly shot of the actress's body slicing through the surface of a pool, as if she's actually falling into a mirror. Graceful, gorgeous moments like that almost make up for the movie's extensive catalogue of sins.
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