Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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Director: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller
Starring: Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke, Josh Brolin, Eva Green, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Powers Boothe
Review: 4 stars (of five)

The long-in-coming sequel to 2005’s Sin City is in some ways a better film than its predecessor.  While it does not quite have the mania for mayhem and gross bodily injury that made the original a weirdly obsessed meditation on genre tropes, it has a better sense of story and character, and better balance.

SinCity2-AvaGreen-01I recently described the first Sin City to a friend as:  “Did you ever wish you could watch a Jim Thompson novel come to life while you’re quitting heroin cold-turkey?”  Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is not as brutal a kick in the face as the original, but it’s still hard going for the squeamish, and a festival of fun for fans of extreme violence and hot babes.  It shows its directors more comfortable with their cinematic adaptation of the comics’ highly stylized look.  It’s as though the first film allowed the creators to get certain things out of their system, so they could return with a level of control to match their meth-head intensity.  And to anyone who’d complain the sequel lacks the savage punch of the first, I’d say that to try to top the pure kinetic impact of that first, never-before-seen distillation of hard-boiled tropes would be a doomed endeavor.  This isn’t a film about expressing a take on the crime genre.  It’s a return to the world of Basin City that ultimately tells us more about that City, not just the kinds of villains and antiheroes running through its back alleys.

The Yarns

The film takes its name from the one full-length Sin City comic it adapts.  It also incorporates a previously published short (“Just Another Saturday Night”) and two new stories Miller wrote for the film, “The Long Bad Night” and “Nancy’s Last Dance.”  “Saturday Night” is a pleasant, brief piece of fluff (in the Sin City style), but the other three are significant.

“A Dame to Kill For” was Miller’s second Sin City yarn, and his best, with the possible exception of the original, Marv-focused story later subtitled “The Hard Goodbye.”  It is particularly well-adapted here, thanks in large part to the brilliant casting of Eva Green as the dame in question.  The comic’s Ava Lord is drawn as an undiluted goddess, like Ava Gardner in The Killers, turned up to 11.  (That’s a lot of Ava/Evas, I know.  Stay with me.)  Here, Green brings much of the comic character’s beauty, but also a visible, malignant evil that surpasses what Miller drew.  Frequently, it seems you can see her skull beneath her face—not a special effect, just a combination of lighting, Green’s physiognomy, and her performance.  In the comic, you saw her through the eyes of her victims, alluring no matter how repellant.  In Green, she is beautiful but often simultaneously ugly in her inhuman cruelty.  It’s the best story in the new film, thanks also to Josh Brolin’s turn as Dwight (the character Clive Owen played in the original, here in a prequel story).

The most stylish story is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s, “Title,” in which he’s a slick young gambler who never loses—until he decides to confront Senator Rourk (Powers Boothe, returning to the role).  Gordon-Levitt’s NAME is the first Sin City protagonist to not be cut from the Mickey Spillane mold, and he brings an energy and charisma to the movie that’s very different from that of Brolin, Mickey Rourke or the briefly seen Bruce Willis.

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The most affecting segment is the big surprise:  the final story, “Nancy’s Last Dance,” in which the determined and doomed lone hero of a Sin City story is a woman.  And not just any woman, but Nancy Callahan, the stripper who appears in the background of nearly every Sin City story, and who, when brought to the foreground, is possibly the only pure character in Miller’s murky metropolis.  Jessica Alba plays a great drunk, but isn’t always convincing as a would-be killer.  Fortunately, this is not a film for subtlety or range.

Sin City revisited

SinCity1The first Sin City was a very faithful adaptation of three of Frank Miller’s graphic novels. While the books were released years apart, the film mashed them together, and certain very specific motifs appeared over and over. Every episode had:

  • someone tied to a chair and pistol-whipped.
  • a different narrator, but the same staccato narrative voice.
  • its protagonist die, or surrender to death—for a moment, before being revived or saved.
  • a lot of dismemberment, particularly … well, see the next bullet.
  • at least one gunshot to someone’s crotch, and the finale added a character’s junk getting ripped off by hand.

These and other repetitions make that first film seem like a single mad delirium. I imagine a fourth Miller tough guy bleeding out in an alley, as nightmare images from a lifetime of violence mingle and repeat almost nonsensically.

Everything about the film is equally unrestrained, and the cast couldn’t have chewed the digital scenery more effectively if it had been made of caramel. It’s a fun movie if you’re in the right frame of mind, but a hell of a slog if you’re not. The sequel requires a little less specialization on the audience’s part.

Her fate in the film depressed me, and I wished Miller had made a different choice.  In voiceover (and on the poster, so don’t cry spoilers), Alba delivers the final line of the film:  “This rotten city.  It soils everyone.”  With this story, and this last line, Miller and Rodriguez turn the setting of their stories from a lawless background for tough guys, hookers and hired killers into an actively malevolent force of corruption, an almost mystical place that actively poisons those who dwell on its darkened streets.  A brave, smart choice (that, as I say, I wish they hadn’t made).

Continuity Geek

As a final note: I hate to be one of those fans who obsesses about continuity, but the filmmakers encourage it—the first DVD set came with a timeline explaining how its three interwoven stories fit chronologically.  In this film, the bulk of Nancy’s story takes place three years after Hartigan dies, and includes tremendous changes that leave her nothing like the Nancy we saw at any point in the first film.  So her sequence, and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s, which overlaps hers, must take place after everything in Sin City, unless I’m missing something.  Yet Mickey Rourke’s Marv is alive throughout, and he didn’t make it out of the first film alive.

I don’t mind that as a rule, because I’m more interested in what would make the sequel good than getting bogged down in details of such an unrealistic world.  But his inclusion in Nancy’s story rubbed me wrong.  I didn’t like the way she manipulated him—the same way Dwight manipulated him in “A Dame to Kill For.”  I would’ve liked Nancy to face her final battle alone, or with Marv knowing exactly why he’s beside her.  The way Miller plays it out here damages the peculiar dignity of the character, and I think that’s the one thing the movie gets absolutely wrong.

Better Safe …?

In fact, making Marv such a central figure in the movie, rather than relegating him to cameos and the short opening segment, “Just Another Saturday Night,” sometimes makes the movie feel more like a tired rock band’s greatest-hits tour rather than a fresh artist’s new statement.  In a sense, then, where the first movie erred on the side of excess, the sequel errs a bit on the side of caution.  Maybe the fact that I saw A Dame to Kill for only a day or two after gorging again on the excess of the original made me appreciate the restraint, and forgive the overuse of Mickey Rourke’s character.