Sin City: A Dame to Kill For Review
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 08.24.2014
After nine years, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez are back to the world of Sin City with their follow-up, A Dame to Kill For! But can the neo-noir comics yield another success? 411's Jeremy Thomas checks in with his full review!
Directed by: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez Written by: Frank Miller
• Mickey Rourke - Marv
• Jessica Alba - Nancy Callahan
• Josh Brolin - Dwight McCarthy
• Eva Green - Ava Lord
• Joseph Gordon-Levitt - Johnny
• Powers Boothe - Senator Roark
• Dennis Haysbert - Manute
• Rosario Dawson - Gail
• Bruce Willis - John Hartigan
• Jamie Chung - Miho
• Christopher Meloni - Mort
• Jeremy Piven - Bob
• Ray Liotta - Joey
• Christopher Lloyd - Kroenig
• Jaime King - Goldie and Wendy
Running Time: 107 minutes
Rated R for strong brutal stylized violence throughout, sexual content, nudity, and brief drug use
In 2005, Sin City redefined the words "faithful comic book adaptation." Comic book films had already been on the rise for half a decade by the time Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez's adaptation of Miller's gritty neo-noir graphic novels, but the genre still seemed to be missing something. There was always something to pick at--an origin story changed here, a superpower switched out there, an amalgamation of a few supporting characters into one--and it seemed that as much as we fanboys were getting what we'd always hoped for, there wasn't much of a chance to get a pure translation of our favorite graphic stories to the big screen. Then the guy behind those Mariachi and Spy Kids movies teamed with the Eisner Award-winning man from a less politically correct time and the result was a visual and stylistic treat for the eyes. Sin City introduced mass audiences to characters like Marv, John Hartigan, Nancy Callahan and the Yellow Bastard and they responded with resounding enthusiasm. That enthusiasm took the film to a surprisingly successful finish at the box office and fans were slavering for a sequel...a chance to see more of Miller's Sin City stories on the big screen.
It's been nine years, but we finally have that sequel. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For packs in all the noir goodness that you can imagine and brings back a lot of our favorites for another go on the big screen. That prospect could take the film in one of two directions: a second dose of bloody, sexy fun or "been there, done that." In the case of A Dame to Kill For, it tries for the former but more often (though not always) feels like the latter.
The film is both a prequel and a sequel to the events of the first film, taking us back to Basin City in a time-hopping escapade. Like the first, it is split into multiple stories that occasionally collide and merge before splitting off in their own directions again. In "Just Another Saturday Night," Marv (Rourke) finds himself unconscious on a highway overlooking the city's Projects district, unable to remember how he got there or why his car is crashed into a police car. This leads him on a quest to retrace his steps, which causes him to run afoul of four sadistic frat boys. "The Long Bad Night" stars Gordon-Levitt as Johnny, a cocky young man with extraordinary luck. He takes that luck into a high-stakes card game that pits him against the powerful and dangerous Senator Roark (Booth). Johnny soon figures out that winning at cards doesn't necessarily mean that you beat the house, although he has a few aces up his sleeve to play.
The titular "A Dame to Kill For" features Dwight from the first film, pre-facial reconstruction surgery and played by Josh Brolin. Working as a private detective, he is trying to keep on the straight and narrow before an old flame named Ava Lord (Green) comes into his life needing help. Like any noir hero he steps to the rescue, but like any femme fatale Ava is not what she seems. In the last story, "Nancy's Last Dance," Nancy Callahan (Alba) is struggling with her need for vengeance against Roark for the death of John Hartigan in the last film. Haunted by Hartigan, she sets out on a potentially self-destructive course to bring the all-powerful senator down in her late rescuer's name.
There's a lot going on in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For and Rodriguez's script solves this problem by having the tales cross paths at several points. All is not on equal footing here and Marv and Nancy's stories are shorter tales, while the characters are slotted into the other tales to give them screen time. Nancy and Johnny's tales are newly created for the film while the other two are adaptations of Sin City graphic novels. The adaptations are as faithful as the previous film and the new stories are a wise move, providing the connective tissue and wrapping up plot threads from the first film. Most of what you're going to see here is what you'll expect; Miller ramps up the noir aspects to ridiculous levels and sometimes it works. Other times the dialogue comes off as pretty weak, even when you take into account the stylized genre work that the franchise relies on.
Characterizations are Miller's typical unsubtle style; the male protagonists are all misanthropic white knights while the women are all damsels, villains or one-dimensional hookers-turned-warrior women. This is not something that should be unexpected of Miller, considering his comic book work, the first film and the so-bad-it-good film adaptation of The Spirit. He does a lot of things well, but writing women isn't one of them. And yet some of the roles are appropriately meaty; while there is no shortage of characters like Miho or Juno Temple's hapless victim Sally, there are the more primary roles of Ava and Nancy. Neither character is what you would call well-rounded but they are characters with a certain sense of agency, at least throughout hefty portions of their stories. The problem is that Miller seems to think that he can just rely on what he did before, and while it's fine to get a double helping of this kind of thing there's not a lot here that would make us want to watch over just sticking Sin City in the Blu-Ray player and rewatching it.
The elements that really save Sin City from being a waste are two-fold: the villains and the performances. If Miller's heroes are a bit lacking, the villains are incredibly powerful in order to help make the heroes look good when pitted against them. Senator Roark is the personification of evil and his corruption spreads throughout the film, while Ava Lord is the classic vamp noir villainess. Both roles are benefitted by their actors. Eva Green is quickly proving that she can make just about anything watchable, elevating 300: Rise of an Empire earlier this year and doing the same this time around. Ava is a joy to watch thanks to Green's sneeringly performance, manipulating her way around weak men to get her way. (And yes, for those interested, she bares all in her performance. A lot.) And Powers Booth is more powerful here as he was in Sin City thanks to more screen time; he has a chance to stretch his legs and he certainly does so. The one weak (or weaker) point is Dennis Haysbert, replacing Michael Clarke Duncan as Manute. Haysbert on his own is fine, but he lacks Duncan's menace and comes across too mild for that role.
The actors behind the heroes aren't quite the same level as the villains, but they give it their utmost. Mickey Rourke is a joy to watch as Marv, who is basically the same character this time around. And Jessica Alba gets to go down a darker path as Nancy, which works well. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has charm and he fits firmly within the noir feel of the film, but his character pales in comparison to the others. Josh Brolin suffers the most among the protagonists; like Haysbert he's replacing an actor, this time Clive Owen. Owen simply has a better understanding of how to deliver Miller's dialogue and Brolin tries, but the performances feel like they don't mesh. One cameo stands out, and surprisingly it's that of Lady Gaga in a brief role as a waitress who Johnny encounters. Gaga is no natural actress but she does quite well for what's required of her here.
As a film, A Dame to Kill For is not cohesive. But at least it's a visual treat. Rodriguez and Miller have the same aesthetic as the first film and while the set-pieces aren't as compelling as the Roark farm or the docks, they're still well-done. It's the use of color that really stands out; the green of Ava Lord's eyes flashes with an almost religious insanity amidst all the black and white while there are occasional subtle uses that really work. When Ava and Dwight kiss early on, the only color on screen are the blue of Ava's coat and the rest of their tongues, shown just briefly. Red is sin itself in Sin City, the color of blood and lust and death. It feels like Ava is literally passing her evil onto Dwight in this moment and it's a strong visual. If Miller and Rodriguez could have achieved better pacing (certain edits seem jarring) and invested more of a fresh sense into the film, the visuals could have carried it to greatness the way the first film did.
One last note: this is a rare film that stands out in 3D. Rodriguez's use of the often-superfluous element stands out in scenes like a pair of cars symbolically chasing around Marv's head, steam rising out of the pool around Ava's body, and light through the bullet holes Nancy puts in a shooting practice target. These really help the visuals stand out; they are likely to feel a bit flatter in 2D so your mileage may vary.
The 411: Those who go into Sin City: A Dame to Kill For simply wanting more of the same will very likely be satisfied to some level. Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez take the graphic novel elements of the first film and apply them to new Miller stories for an effect that is fun yet a bit tired. The landscape of comic book films has changed over the last nine years and the two aren't willing to come to grips to that. The visuals are very strong and Eva Green nearly singlehandedly saves the film as Ava Lord, but a lacking-in-comparison performance by Josh Brolin, some very weak dialogue and a few pacing issues drag this down. Go in with tempered expectations and you'll likely come out enjoying it to at least some degree, but it certainly doesn't hit the neo-noir heights of its predecessor.