[22 August 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
They say you can’t capture lightning in a bottle, that a once novel paired with a fresh concept can’t be reused to the same stunning effect a second time around. This is the main critique of sequels, in fact. Whatever made the original hit movie a cultural phenomenon cannot be rediscovered and maintained over a follow-up (or franchise).
So when Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller decided to wait nine long years to revisit their visionary Sin City, many wondered if the near-decade away from their pioneering digital neo-noir would result in something dull and derivative. The answer, luckily, is “No!” Is it as good as the first groundbreaking film? Well…
The problem here can be placed squarely at the storytelling source. Using a prequel/continuation concept, the filmmaking duo decide we need to see more of Marv (Yea!) and even more of Nancy (Ummm…). They especially believe we will swoon over dozens of scenes featuring a naked Eva Green and will buy that Clive Owen used to look like Josh Brolin before some identity changing plastic surgery (talk about a suspension of disbelief).
Still, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For trades in the hardboiled grit of the fascinating ‘40s/‘50s crime subgenre while continuing the directors’ obsession with all things monochrome and greenscreen.
Intertwining three stories, we begin with Marv (a terrific Mickey Rourke) waking up along the side of the road. Surrounded by dead bodies and wondering how he got a bullet in his shoulder, the granite faced thug tries to piece together what happened. Of course it has something to do with Nancy (Jessica Alba), her haunted - and booze-induced memories of Jack Hartigan (Bruce Willis), and her desire to get revenge on Basin City’s evil powerbroker, Senator Roark (Powers Booth). Vowing to always protect her, Marv agrees to help her plan an ambush.
In the meantime, Roark is also being menaced by a undeniably lucky card sharp (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who never seems to lose. He’s carrying a secret that could destroy the political despot, as well. We then go to events prior to the first film, when Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) looked different and was making a living as a private investigator. An old flame named Ava (Eva Green) rings him up, hoping he will help her escape from her abusive rich husband and his hulking, sadistic manservant Manute (Dennis Haysbert). Naturally, after agreeing, he finds himself set-up for a crime he didn’t commit.
Like a Turner Classic Movies marathon played at maximum speed and volume, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is violence, vice, and victimization trimmed of all necessary trifles. It’s a pair of brass knuckles to the cranium, the incessant stink of bad liquor and bad men melded with cheap perfume and an aura of lust. It’s pulp, familiar and yet still a bit fresh, a collection of cinematic clichés made new by technology and tenacity.
It takes nerve for Rodriguez and Miller to come back to this material so late in their legacy. If that had done it back in 2007 or 2009, that might have been better. By waiting almost a decade, they’re almost hoping for a kind of bizarro-world nostalgia, where the audience that was mesmerized the first time around now feels a pang of wistfulness for all the machismo and mammaries.
On that note, there’s a lot more sex this time around, almost all of it revolving around a topless Eva Green. As she showed in 300: Rise of an Empire, no one turns nudity into a nuclear weapon like this French babe. When she can’t convince Brolin’s Dwight to do her bidding via words and vows, she sneaks into his hovel of a home and waits for him, unclothed.
During another sequence involving seduction (of a different kind), those fleshy feminine wiles are, again, put to use. Honestly, Green’s costuming is more birthday suit than hard boiled dame, and she uses it to empower her character. Oddly enough, no other main character is treated in such a fashion. Even Alba’s “stripper” Nancy is never seen without some manner of major cover-up.
And speaking of Nancy, hers is by far the weakest storyline here. While Joseph Gordon-Levitt is chewing on toothpicks and flipping coins, as Marv is mowing down adversaries with Neanderthal ease, Alba mopes about, plays Snake Pit, reacts to imaginary visions of Willis, and swigs from bottles that might as well be labeled in big type, “rot gut”.
By the time she steps up and starts shooting arrows into bodyguards’ heads, the transformation is tired. We’ve watched the character waste so much time in a pointless potent potable haze that we wish Rodriquez and Miller had dumped her and, instead, focused on the girls of Old Town, or perhaps, the story of how Dwight saved Miho (which we get about 15 seconds of).
No, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is not perfect, but neither was the original. Drag out your DVD or Blu-ray and revisit the film and you’ll see a pointless Josh Hartnett, an underused Carla Gugino, and a lot of loose ends. Here, most of the stories seem wrapped up pretty tight, though we never get to actually see Senator Roark’s proposed comeuppance.
Instead, Rodriguez and Miller seem to be setting things up for yet another go-round, and while this movie makes it clear such a trequel will be highly entertaining, it may no longer be necessary. Especially if they decide to wait until 2023.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For pushes the boundaries of what this material and this artistic approach can do to the point of self-parody. The action sequences are excellent (including Dwight and Marv’s infiltration of Eva’s home), but the rough and tumble narration becomes obnoxious after a while. The acting is uniformly good, though it’s a bitter pill to swallow that Clive Owen and Devon Aoki couldn’t comeback to reprise their roles. While Rourke is his usual overblown self, Brolin is more dour than deep.
In fact, the biggest flaw in something like Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is how shallow and superficial it is. The original noir was all about nuance. Here, Rodriguez and Miller go for the gaudy and the gauche.