Friday, September 5, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For — Not nearly sinful enough

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for nudity, sexual content, brief drug use and relentless strong violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.5.14

Nine years is a long time to wait for a sequel, particularly one with interlinked stories that weave in and around the first film’s similarly interconnected narrative.

Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) roars into Sin City, a man on a mission. He's determined to
out-play the local power-monger during a high-stakes poker game ... but, in fact, Johnny
also has a lot more on his mind. What else would drive such a flashy young man to such
suicidal behavior?
My memory isn’t up to that challenge. And I’d argue that a film’s potential success shouldn’t rest on a viewer’s willingness to embark on deep research, in order to have a better idea of what’s going on.

But that isn’t the only problem with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, once again adapted by comic book impresario Frank Miller, from his macabre and über-cynical Sin City graphic novel series. The far bigger flaw is that Miller obviously cherry-picked his best stories for the first film, whereas this one is laden with leftovers and sloppy seconds.

The result is a common cinematic disease: all style and very little substance.

To be sure, Miller and gonzo co-director Robert Rodriguez once again deliver the material with the seamy, amped-up decadence and hard-bitten dialogue that will amuse fans of 1940s and ’50s film noir classics. The atmosphere oozes with scandal: the tough guys hard as granite (literally); the dames, floozies and femme fatales straight out of Hammett and Chandler ... assuming, of course, that their women would have pranced about in cleavage-enhancing goth/punk corsets and garters. Or nothing at all.

But do bear in mind — as with the first film — that only the actors are real here; the rest is CGI fabrication. That means all the buildings and streets in (Ba)sin City, not to mention all the action scenes, car chases and death-with-prejudice fist fights, maimings, decapitations and defenestrations, not to mention samurai-style limb slicing and arrows through eyeballs. No more “real” than the gladiator nonsense of 300 and its recent sequel.

As further befitting the material’s noir sensibilities, this is a primarily black-and-white universe, aside from occasional splashes of red (lipstick, blood) or full color, the latter generally employed — with heavy irony — to suggest a character’s innocence.

This is deliberate, of course; the goal is to bring Miller’s savage comic book artwork and sensibilities to the screen. Literally. He and Rodriguez once again succeed, catching the feverish artistic vitality that crackles like heat lightning on every one of Miller’s blasphemously violent pages.

But our potential engagement with the results — as always is the case with live-action movies, as well — depends upon engaging characters and compelling storylines.

And that’s where this sequel falls flat.

Dame offers two new stories, along with a short prologue — ample warning of grim things to come — and an update on a fourth tale that began in the previous film. All of these narratives wander in and out of Kadie’s infamous Club Pecos, where stripper Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) entertains patrons nightly; all the stories also feature the rock-hard, essentially indestructible Marv (Mickey Rourke) to one degree or another.

The most involved tale gives this film its subtitle, and gets much of its juice from Eva Green’s wickedly provocative performance as Ava Lord, a flint-eyed high-society skank who could’ve eaten Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson (1944’s Double Indemnity) for breakfast. Seems that Ava has “history” with Dwight McCarthy, whom we’ll recall was one of the kinda-sorta good guys in the first film.

A lot of folks may not realize that it is the same character, since the first film’s Dwight was played by Clive Owen, whereas Josh Brolin has taken over here. But yes; it’s the same somewhat self-destructive guy who stays alive mostly due to the protective embrace of Gail (Rosario Dawson) and her heavily armed prostitute allies in Sin City’s even badder “Old Town” section.

(Hard to imagine that any portion of this festering cesspool of a metropolis could be “worse” than the rest, but that’s definitely true of Old Town.)

Ava has a problem, so she comes to Dwight for help. He tries to ignore her, but can’t help falling into the inky-black pool of her pleading gaze, just as he falls atop her naked body at first opportunity. Seems that Ava’s wealthy but dissolute husband has rather unusual ideas for “punishing” his wife, most of them involving sexual degradation at the willing hands of their man-monster chauffeur, Manute (Dennis Haysbert).

Dwight, unable to stand the images now popping into his head, reluctantly succumbs once again to Ava’s charms ... knowing, that by doing so, he’s “letting the monster out.”

(For those who care to track such things, this Dwight story actually takes place prior to his activities — dubbed “The Big Fat Kill” — in the first film. Not that it really makes a difference here.)


Cocky, ultra-slick gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) blasts into town in a 1960 Corvette convertible, saunters into Kadie’s and demonstrates the degree to which Lady Luck adores him, by hitting winners on the slot machines. This brings him to the attention of Marcie (Julia Garner), a sweet young thing who probably doesn’t belong in these surroundings, but, well, naïve girls can’t help flitting, moth-like, around dangerous guys.

Johnny wants to get into the back room’s high-stakes poker game, where the gleefully corrupt Senator Roark (Powers Booth) fleeces all comers. But Johnny knows that he can out-play Roark, never mind the obvious peril involved with merely attempting to one-up Sin City’s most powerful politico, God forbid succeeding. Small wonder, then, that this saga is dubbed “The Long, Bad Night.”

That title is accurate; Johnny’s night subsequently becomes quite long. And horrific. But it’s also incomprehensible, in terms of his motivation and behavior, not to mention the outcome of his mano a mano poker challenge with Roark. Gordon-Levitt has attitude to spare, and his voice-overs are among the film’s best, but Johnny’s story is bewildering, unsatisfying and ultimately irritating.

It’s interesting to note that Miller concocted Johnny and his saga specifically for this film, as opposed to adapting previously published material. The difference shows.


Nancy hasn’t done well in the aftermath of the first film’s most gripping story, “That Yellow Bastard,” wherein veteran cop John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) repeatedly saved her life, ultimately losing his own in the process. She loved Hartigan, and her soul aches over his absence; her nightly, alcohol-fueled dance routines have become increasingly erratic, and she has taken up target practice with a massive pistol.

Her goal: to kill Roark, instrument of Hartigan’s death, and father of the degenerate lunatic (the “yellow bastard”) who previously menaced her. But she can’t do it; despite ample opportunities (over months? years?), she hasn’t been able to pull the trigger. And her own impotence is eating her alive, as is her anger at Hartigan for having “abandoned” her.

The question, then, is what Nancy will do next.

Willis actually does pop up, but only as a shade; in an echo of his role in Sixth Sense, his departed spirit watches, helplessly, as Nancy slides further and further into despair.

One could argue that Willis’ presence owes more to marquee value, and potential ticket sales, than narrative necessity. That said, it’s good to see him again; he adds a nice note of world-weary sadness to these proceedings.

The large cast clearly has a great time, everybody doing a fine job with the essential decadence and icy immorality. Green is by far the best, shamelessly employing her robustly carnal body to maximum effect. She’s nasty. Booth is corruption personified, his feral grin the stuff of nightmares; Haysbert’s Manute is just plain scary.

Rourke’s Marv is a force of nature, elevated from the first film’s supporting role to full-blown starring prominence here. Marv looks after his own, and he’s always willing to help. Dawson gets plenty of juice from Gail’s feral leer, and Jamie Chung — taking over from the first film’s Devon Aoki — cuts a deadly swath as the silent, sword-wielding Miko, Gail’s most trusted lieutenant.

Christopher Meloni falls from grace as an initially honorable cop soon trapped in Ava Lord’s web, and Christopher Lloyd is a hoot as Kroenig, a doctor whose skills at “repairing” folks depends on hands made steady by heroin (!). Stacy Keach is utterly unrecognized as Wallenquist, Sin City’s grotesque mob boss; Jamie King plays twin prostitutes Wendy and Goldie, the latter remembered as the dead body Marv finds in his bed, in the first film’s “The Hard Goodbye.”

Unfortunately, this sequel doesn’t give most of these characters enough narrative meat on which to skewer their hard-boiled performances. Strange as it’ll sound, the villains here aren’t as jaw-droppingly twisted and ghastly as the first film’s sickest predators (memorably played by Nick Stahl and Elijah Wood); as a result, this sequel’s fresh vengeance isn’t nearly as satisfying.

After awhile, the bullets, arrows, sword slices and various other lethal skirmishes just, well, bleed together.

Delivering tired, tedious, and ultimately diminishing returns.

Too bad. Miller and Rodriguez should have quit while they were ahead.

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