[Review] ‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’ Is More (and Less) of the Same

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Back in 2005, when comic book legend Frank Miller joined forces with renegade indie filmmaker Robert Rodriguez to bring Miller’s sleazy, hyper-stylized, ultraviolent tribute to ’40s pulp detective thrillers Sin City to the big screen, it seemed the stars aligned quite nicely on that project, resulting in a swirling monochromatic blend of classic noir atmosphere, grindhouse-style exploitation and state-of-the-art digital magic. It was the right combination at the right time, and its success was well-earned. While a return to the rain-slicked perpetual night of Basin City was a foregone conclusion, it’s amazing it took nearly a decade for Miller and Rodriguez to revisit that world… but they finally did, delving again into Miller’s comic source material for a new set of interlocking stories – most of which actually take place prior to the events of the first film.

Where the original Sin City dove headlong in to surreal, twisted and often horrifying fantasy (living severed heads, monstrous mutants, a cannibal serial killer), A Dame to Kill For plays its cards a bit closer to the chest, adhering more to the long-established tropes of the hard-boiled ’40s detective novels and classic films which inspired Miller’s comic series in the the first place, with much less emphasis on outlandish, horror-tinged scenarios. That might seem like a fair choice (though perhaps a let-down for horror fans), but in the long run this approach actually works against the film, leaving it in often tedious limbo between over-the-top comic fantasy and gritty, old-school film noir, sampling heavily from both but not fully committed to either.

Thankfully, the wild, anarchic sense of fun is mostly intact, thanks in large part to the strength of the actors involved. Seeing many of the original characters return to the fold is a definite plus: Mickey Rourke’s hulking, wise-ass bruiser Marv is always a blast, dominating as thoroughly as he did in the first film (and rightly so); Jessica Alba returns as whip-cracking exotic dancer Nancy, now tormented by the loss of Bruce Willis’ grizzled cop John Hartigan, the only man she ever loved (the fact that he blew his brains out in the last film doesn’t mean he can’t watch over her). Rosario Dawson’s tough-as-nails Gail gets an awesome entrance, flanked by her all-female crew of Old Town assassins, but much like Alba, she doesn’t ultimately have much to do apart from briefly assisting Brolin. In fact, many of the principals are a bit underused, lost amid a rambling collection of missed opportunities.

Among the new talent on display is rock-jawed Josh Brolin, taking over the role of Dwight from Clive Owen for the film’s central tale, which precedes the events of the first film and follows Dwight’s doomed relationship with impossibly seductive femme fatale Ava Lord – the titular Dame – played with spooky, green-eyed, serpentine grace by the frequently naked Eva Green, turning in one of the film’s most outlandishly memorable performances. While the change in Dwight’s looks is explained reasonably well, and Brolin is compelling (as always) in the role, his personality has clearly shifted from super-suave antihero to a coarse, overwrought private-eye type who delivers the film’s most cringe-inducing, clichéd noir lines. Oh sure, I know Miller’s playing with the formula, and often in a satirical way, but some of Dwight’s Mickey Spillane-on-acid narration in this segment verges from hard-boiled into waaay overcooked, provoking the kind of groans usually reserved for truly awful puns. Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings his usual boyish charm as Johnny – a cocky, nearly infallible young gambler who pits his skills against Basin City’s puppet master, Senator Roark (the awesome Powers Boothe, once again devouring virtually every scene he’s in), who redefines the term “sore loser” in one of the film’s most brutal moments.

I would have enjoyed more screen time from any of these players, but the often truncated plot lines occasionally sabotage their potential. Loose ends go flopping in all directions – so many, in fact, that I suspect eleventh-hour cuts might have laid waste to large chunks of each story. For example, we’re clearly shown Johnny on a collision course of vengeance against the Senator (tempered by a shocking secret they share), but this thread is resolved too abruptly to carry enough dramatic weight. Alba’s Nancy is also driven by revenge, turned half-mad by hatred toward the Senator – whom, along with his late son Junior (a.k.a. “Yellow Bastard”), she blames for Hartigan’s suicide in the first film – and each time we see her she’s one step closer to exacting poetic justice… but when the moment of truth arrives, it’s a case of too little, too late.

Rounding out the ensemble is Dennis Haysbert (taking over for Michael Clarke Duncan, who sadly died in 2012), all smooth menace as Ava’s unstoppable bodyguard Manute – though I would have liked to see more of his titanic clashes with Marv, the only man who can equal him in hand-to-hand combat. We even get a creepy cameo from veteran actor Stacy Keach – albeit smothered in a grotesque fat-suit – but his inferred connection to Roarke begins and ends there. (Speaking of cameos: be on the lookout for a certain Ms. Gaga as a  hash-slinger with a heart of gold, and the co-directors as drunken characters on a cheesy TV show.)

The stylish action comes as fast and crazed as Sin City fans have come to expect (heads and limbs go flying at every opportunity; one multiple decapitation got a round of applause from the audience), and the filmmakers utilize the same mad technical and artistic skills to bring lusty life to Miller’s panels – all inky black night and cut-out white silhouettes spattered with primary-color highlights (red cars, gold coins, a devilish blue dress, and buckets of blood in various hues). But ultimately A Dame to Kill For comes off as more of an interesting companion piece to the original film than a tale strong enough to stand tall on its own. Come to think of it, I’d actually like to see the two cut together into a single epic, while shifting some of the storylines around for continuity – similar to Coppola’s re-cut of the first two Godfather films – with some of the apparently missing plot threads restored. Now that would be a flick to kill for.

Official Score

  • Fantasma George

    I recall when this was in limbo there were rumors that Johnny Depp was also in it. He was gonna play Wallace, right? Because that’s the movie I really wanted to watch.

    • Yakushiji Tenzen

      Yeah To Hell and Back with Depp as Wallace would be a good likeness, although I just can’t see him as a Navy Seal. I think one more movie ought to tie up the rest of the books.

  • J Jett

    Eva Green is the main draw for me with this movie. she’s making it look really good! she plays evil really well!

  • Khy

    Not really my thing but I’m interested to see how it does at the box office. I don’t think it’ll do well. Been nine years since the first and I don’t even remember seeing any TV spots for this.

    • J Jett

      Khy, they’ve been playing tv spots for this out here on the West Coast but you bring up a good point. it’s been a really long time since the first film.

    • Chamber

      Are you serious? Star Wars had decades between movies and people still flocked to see those. Mad Max is getting a sequel and that movie is 20+ years old. Honestly, it doesn’t matter how long it takes between films as long as you have good word of mouth and great advertising (which this film will have).

      • Khy

        The new Mad Max seems more like a distant reboot than a straight up sequel And come on, Star Wars is an iconic franchise that has been around for years with a HUGE fanbase. That’s a silly comparison. The predictions for Sin City aren’t looking great- and that’s not just my opinion, but Box office Mojo’s as well- The 9 year gap DOES matter- http://boxofficemojo.com/news/?id=3894&p=.htm
        And before you jump down my throat calling me a hater or someone who wants this movie to fail- that’s far from the truth. I’m just saying the 9 year gap IS a factor that should be taken into account.

        • Fantasma George

          I wouldn’t necessarily call Fury Road (Mad Max 4) a distant reboot but more of another distant sequel, exactly like Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome. The series has always been like that since Road Warrior, making a point that the world kept getting worse since whatever happened by the start of the first movie happened.

  • Ryan A

    I’ll be seeing it on Saturday. I am as big of a fan as Sin City as they come and I completely trust Rodriguez and Miller to deliver.

    • Lyle Chip Chipperson

      I have a lot of trust in Rodriquez as long as he isn’t making a kids movie. He is great except for when he tries to appeal to children. Just not his forte.

      • Chamber

        Thank you.

  • parsyeb

    Losing Clive Owen for the sequel was a pretty dumb move. The plot kinda demands that he reappears….

    • SuperBakaKing

      Read the books and you’ll understand why (at least for his appearance) it was done this way.

      • parsyeb

        Yeah, was trying to avoid spoilers here. In the books, he eventually looks a bit more like the character in the first film… cast both of them, switch it over to Owen.

  • Dave Be

    I’m looking forward to it. “hard-boiled into waaay overcooked” describes the first one perfectly, so if this is more of that, bueno.

  • VictorCrowley

    I saw the movie today and I enjoyed it. Sure, there were certain things I wished they had done differently, but the same can be said for every single film I see. The only things I feel the need to point out and question:

    SPOILER WARNING:

    How is Marv still alive when Nancy goes after Senator Roark? Yes, I know he was sitting at the bar when Hartigan comes in near the end of the first film and Nancy jumps off the stage and kisses him. But, in Marv’s story where he dies in the electric chair, he stops by Nancy’s to drop off Wendy and get beers. Nancy is clearly in the era of her life when Hartigan finds her. Meanwhile, Marv goes after and kills Cardinal Roark, gets caught by the cops, and spends his remaining days in prison and is executed.

    In the new film, Nancy is grieving over Hartigan’s death and is older, and transforms herself by cutting her hair and cutting/scarring her face. Marv should be long gone by then.

    Something else that doesn’t quite make sense is in the graphic novel, when Bob and Mort are arguing over Ava in the car, you can see Marv and Wendy drive past them, presumably on their way to kill Kevin. Marv kills Kevin then immediately goes after Cardinal Roark and his fate ensues as noted above. In the new movie, this is happening at the same time as Dwight McCarthy’s story before his face is reconstructed. In the first movie adaptation, McCarthy is sitting inside Kadie’s Bar with his new face when Nancy is dancing and Marv is there and still alive. Seems like a definite plot hole.

    Eh, whatever. I dig the new movie lol. If you liked the first one I believe you’ll enjoy the new film.

  • Cameron

    Eva Green looks like a zombie in that screen shot, is all the makeup this bad? Or is she the one person who looks awful in black and white? I know it’s not very important but I found it so distracting in the trailers.

  • Evan3

    Wow, WB has to be sweating with this movie’s performance considering Batman v. Superman is also based on Miller’s work. Anyways, its a damned shame, this movie. There was a time I would have been there midnight Thursday with a crowd of similarly pumped up fans. Now Rodriguez, Miller, and the franchise has all lost its sheen. A line in your review is apt here in regards to this sequel, “when the moment of truth arrives, it’s a case of too little, too late.”

    At least we will always have a worthy sequel with Virtue City:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKxSl8LG71o

  • mongia

    Doesn’t sound like they made amends. http://bit.ly/196gKgB