Hollywood is usually pretty quick off the bat on commissioning sequels – often a picture’s barely made it into cinemas before a follow-up’s been green-lit – but every now and then they leave us twiddling our thumbs.
It’s been nine years since Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s hyper-visual, hyper-violent Sin City made its way onto our screens, long enough that even the most ardent fan had given up hope of a second installment. Given the sheer improbability of its existence, how does Sin City: A Dame to Kill For compare with its illustrious predecessor?
In a word (or two): not well.
Following a similar format to the first film, A Dame to Kill For plunges us into a series of vignettes based around the classic film noir themes of justice, redemption, betrayal. In equal parts a sequel and a prequel – various beloved characters are resurrected for their appearances – the film features a line-up that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Mickey Spillane paperback.
There’s Marv (Mickey Rourke), a hulking, monstrous figure with a taste for mayhem; Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a smooth and cocky gambler with a plan to take down the house; Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin), an innately violent man trying to put his past behind him; and Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), an emotionally damaged stripper haunted by loss – and Bruce Willis.
These three stories – two of them taken from Miller’s comic stories, two written specially for the film – form the backbone of A Dame To Kill For, but they never dovetail in any meaningful way. Between them dozens of brutal deaths, including innumerable decapitations; two counts of defenestration; multiple rampages; and an inordinate amount of superfluous female nudity, mostly courtesy of Eva Green as the eponymous dame.
The film matches its predecessor blow-for-blow aesthetically, but the visuals – glossy black and white with splashes of color – seem to be all it has to offer.
If the original Sin City was very much a case of style over substance then at least it had the benefit of being novel. In the case of A Dame to Kill For, what once could have been claimed as subversive now seems merely adolescent and uncomfortably male gaze-y. While Nancy’s striptease act may once have been empowering, here it’s simply exploitative – Alba’s voiceover states as much, but the admission feels very much like Miller trying to have his cake and eat it.
The film stakes no new territory and, in fact, reflects badly on the original: Marv, is reduced to a delusional, easily manipulable blunt instrument while Bruce Willis, it seems, picked up a pay check for merely being physically present whenever it’s convenient to the plot.
These tales of bad men and bloody deeds quickly begin to wear: you begin to long for a Double Indemnity or a The Big Sleep, the very film’s that A Dame to Kill For uninspiredly takes its cues from. Aesthetics aside, the whole thing feels about as genuinely hard-boiled as a three-minute egg.
Amidst the handful of tropes, however, there are a few noteworthy performances: Powers Boothe smirks and sneers his way through proceedings as the power-mad Senator Roark, Christopher Meloni is strong as the dangerously repressed Mort, while the ever-sultry Green was born to play the femme fatale (even if the camera lingers on her curves as though this were a car commercial).
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For ends as abruptly as it began, leaving us with little to remember – or commend it by. Absurdly bloody and cartoonishly oversexualized, Sin City reflects poorly on most of those involved, including, sadly, Josh Brolin, who simply lacks the edge that Clive Owen brought to the same role.
There’s a memorable moment in which playing cards seem to slide over the edge of the frame while being dealt, but, other than which, the post-production 3D is mostly a no-go as well. Sometime during the past decade, the magic seems to have vanished.
Ultimately, A Dame to Kill For can’t seem to muster one story worth telling. It’s financial failure, meanwhile, should serve as a reminder to the studios that some things are better left buried. Rosario Dawson, for her commitment, deserves a better showcase.