When Sin City was released in 2005 it was widely praised for its innovative visual style and exaggerated neo-noir tone. I was there at the beginning, a 15-year-old watching with a group of friends as part of a birthday celebration. My sister was there too. She didn’t care much for the film, but it worked for me. Sin City was a touchstone for me at the time. It was the first R-rated movie I snuck into. It was a comic series I would leaf through in Borders (RIP), hoping to be titillated. It was everything a teenager could want. But I’m not a teenager anymore, and Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller made the mistake of waiting 9 years to put out a sequel. So if I’m not watching Sin City: A Dame to Kill For for titillation – why am I doing it?
Much like its predecessor, A Dame to Kill For is an anthology crime film. It opens with a short Marv (Mickey Rourke) vignette, before diving into the real meat of the movie. There are three main storylines in he sequel. The first stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Johnny, a gambler and a hustler who returns to Basin City hoping to make a name for himself by going up against the dastardly Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). In the middle of that piece, we are re-introduced to Dwight (Josh Brolin, taking over for Clive Owen), a disturbed man who finds himself drawn back into the life of his seductive former lover, Ava (Eva Green, presumably playing herself). The film concludes with the continuation of the story of Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), whose countenance has fallen greatly since “the only man [she] ever loved,” John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), committed suicide to save her from Roark’s wrath. Well it turns out Nancy has a wrath of her own.
Everyone has wrath in Basin City, actually, and it invariably comes out in the most violent ways possible. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is very gruesome (as was the original), but it is missing something. There was a thoughtfulness to 2005’s Sin City – evident in that film’s opening scene. Josh Harnett features as a hitman, but the violence that occurs is a natural advancement of the plot in that situation, rather than the entire purpose of its existence. A Dame to Kill For just goes for broke in terms of using its style as a delivery mechanism for extreme violence. The movie still has that great visual look to it that embodies the grit of Basin City, but most of that style is drowned out by the deafening lack of substance. A Dame to Kill For is an exercise in grisly murder. From Marv’s gleeful brutality, to Miho’s (Jamie Chung) whirling blades of dismemberment – no one gets out of this one unscathed.
This is as good a place as any to talk characters. They are pretty hit of miss in the sequel, mostly depending on the actor’s ability to deliver the lines. Guys like Brolin and Boothe and Christopher Meloni have no problem with it, but Alba and Gordon-Levitt have a tougher go. Unfortunately, that makes it hard to care about their characters – and thus, hard to care about 2/3rds of the film. But it’s hard to place all the blame on them.
Miller’s script is incredibly incoherent at times. Characters go back and forth (often literally) from place to place, without any real motivation for these actions. And there is no sense of pacing. The original film rose and fell within its segments, but Rodriguez and Miller still found ways to make the whole feel cohesive. A Dame to Kill For has none of that. When a segment ends, it’s done. There is very little to carry over to the next story. And when the last section ends, well, the whole movie is over, with almost no connective tissue to what came before.
The movie isn’t a total dud. As I mentioned Brolin and Boothe are fantastic. Everyone commits really, down to the one scene appearances by the likes of Ray Liotta, Stacy Keach, and Christopher Lloyd. In fact I would have been more interested in a movie about Lloyd’s doctor character hanging out with Meloni and his partner, Bob (Jeremy Piven as the only overtly Jewish resident of Basin). The dialogue is terrible monologue-y exposition stuff (seemingly on purpose), but when it works it works.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is the philosophical benchmark that women and other oppressed groups have been looking for. Just kidding – it’s awful in that sense. The movie establishes strong female characters (Alba, Green, Rosario Dawson’s Gail), but inevitable negative facets of their personalities always end up getting in the way. No, this movie is not designed for that kind of analysis. It is meant to be a mindless thrill. If that’s what you’re looking for then check out A Dame to Kill For. Consider all of the preceedings a fair warning, however.