Tuesday, September 02, 2014


Sin City: The Dame to Kill For doubtlessly seemed like a good idea on paper. Given the pedigree of its cast, source material and the favorable reputation of its predecessor, which was such an eye-popping blast when it bowed in 2005, how could it not? What a difference nine years makes. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s return to the grimy, sweaty, gore-streaked streets now feels flat, predictable and kinda sad. The results never approach Immortals or The Spirit levels of unwatchable wretchedness, to be fair, but the picture lacks sizzle and shock, and never strives to raise the bar for this brand of stylized green screen filmmaking. It’s trying to replicate the past, rather than aspiring to surpass it. 

Continuing the established structure, A Dame to Kill For likewise consists of three major stories that dance around each other, connecting only superficially (often through the presence of Mickey Rourke’s invaluable brute Marv), yet all representative of the hopelessly blackened soul of the titular city. We see the return of Dwight (Josh Brolin – replacing Clive Owen), a scummy private eye with a penchant for getting his clock cleaned, this time embroiled in a high stakes game of murder, lust and betrayal with Eva Green’s ice-cold, frequently au naturel Ava. There’s also Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Johnny, a deceptively clean-cut gambler planning to topple the sinister Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe) in a dangerous poker match, to hell with the consequences. Rounding out the triptych is Nancy the stripper (Jessica Alba – a lightweight weak link, once again), now on a self-destructive path following the killing of Bruce Willis’s savior cop Hartigan, with her sights firmly set on the powerful father of her infamous deceased nemesis, the Yellow Bastard.

One of Sin City’s greatest joys was watching each of its unique and compelling tales flirt with one another while nevertheless working individually as complete visions of urban decay-tinged chaos. By contrast, A Dame to Kill For really drops the ball on the storytelling front, depending too much on knowledge of the previous entry and playing confusingly fast and loose with the timeline. Like 2014’s other questionable too-late green screen sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire (a much more successful endeavor on an entertainment level, despite being fairly disposable), this film acts as a prequel, sequel and side-quel; a choice that totally prevents the movie from standing alone and creates a barrier of disorientation that prevents the viewer from being able to be absorbed into the hard-boiled narrative. This screenwriting messiness is detrimental to the strength of the parts and plays havoc with the flow of the whole, making the 102-minute run-time (20 minutes less that the original) feel waaaay longer than it actually is. A palpable sense of dread kicks in when Alba’s character takes center stage and you realize there’s still more weary ground to cover.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Sin City is the guy who created it in the first place, Frank Miller. A man of nearly unparalleled genius in his comic-book heyday (there’s a damn good reason “The Dark Knight Returns” and his run on “Daredevil” are so staggeringly influential), he’s become a genuinely problematic artistic voice in our current era due to his near self-parodic over-tendency to rely on sadism, tough guy posturing and uncomfortably masturbatory depictions of women. The sadism and posturing is still ever-present, albeit now pretty much hollow and devoid of impact. The misogyny, however, has grown infinitely more troubling, creepy and difficult to see beyond. Sure, back in 2005, we noticed it. Yet it managed to blend into this world’s larger web of gaudy extravagance and ruthless nihilism, creating a grander portrait of winking exploitative seediness run amok. It was undeniably unsavory, but not overly offensive. Such is not the case with A Dame to Kill For, which descends so deeply into the muck that the results operate solely as a grotesque checklist of Miller’s erotic fixations. Women are either “whores” or victims, all dressed like porn stars, and subjected to being endlessly fetishized by the dehumanizing and detached male-gaze of Rodriguez’s camera. In a film climate where there’s a genuine frustrated demand for strong female characters, this sort of leering, pervy B-movie nonsense no longer plays like a cheeky homage to simpler cinematic times; it feels tired, antiquated and pretty gross.

Additionally, it’s more than a little apparent here that Miller, who has sole screenwriting credit, may love the sensibilities of film noir, though doesn’t quite grasp the intricacies offered by it. When the form emerged in American cinema in the thirties, it was usually typified by its dense shades of moral ambiguity, and troubled characters who all too often occupied grey territory, not quite villains and not quite heroes. Sin City doesn't explore these complexities, and makes it all too clear which side of the line its characters are standing. Heck, even ol’ homicidal Marv has a very specific, unbreakable code he lives by, usually serving as defender of the innocent. By ignoring this crucial element of noir, the writer delivers a shallow, over-simplified imitation, rather than a satisfying slice of the real deal.

Despite the fallacies of the material, credit where credit is due, many of the actors show up to play and almost succeed in carrying the picture back from the abyss. Eva Green, fast-turning into a female version of the Rock, redeeming unnecessary franchise sequels through sheer charisma, brings plenty of seething fierceness and manipulative black widow charm to her scheming title character (someone please give this fantastic actress a movie project worthy of her talents). She finds a strong sparring partner in Brolin who, despite lacking Owen’s suaveness, was born to spit out surly noir dialogue. Also stellar, unsurprisingly, is Rourke, who again infuses his iconic role with sad nobility and tragic horror. Gordon-Levitt brings a nice touch of cool period-era rakishness, while Dennis Haysbert, taking over for Michael Clarke Duncan as towering thug Manute, and Boothe make amusingly menacing villains.

Honestly, the failure of Rodriguez and Miller to fashion anything exciting or new from all of their resources really calls into question whether there’s even a place for these types of movies anymore, where actors are placed into synthetic screensaver environments, edited into scenes with one another and surrounded by cartoonish happenings. It’s impossible to be wowed by the technique and with nothing else tangible to hold onto we’re left bored and uninvolved. Like watching a magic trick that has had its secret revealed, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is all routine, zero astonishment.

1.5 out of 5

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