There’s an inherit problem to the Sin City movies. With so much visual flair, any sense of substance feels obscured by its imagery. As much as these films want to celebrate film noir, they strip the genre down so flagrantly and elevate the genre’s conventions to such heights, there is little left of drama or character. The first Sin City had its moments, wryly empowering women while objectifing them, for instance, but the formula has grown much thinner with the arrival of its sequel, almost 10 years later, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Robert Rodriguez directed the first one, based on the graphic novels of Frank Miller, who now co-directs with Rodriguez.
The film’s visual style, which is part live action and part animation, mostly in black and white with splashes of color and lots of shadows, of course makes it stand out from other movies. There really has never been a comic book adaptation in cinema as committed to the look of the source material as Sin City. But that counts for nothing more than form, albeit a sometimes elegant one. One would hope the involvement of the books’ creator would have fleshed out the characters of the books further, but really this sequel seems even more interested in its own look and feel over any presentation of … I don’t know… How about a little more about the darkness of men beyond action and compulsion? The fact that it was shot in 3D only adds more to the film’s gimmickry over depth.
But really, what more can be done with the age-old film noir genre than to deconstruct it (the best in modern movie-making still has to be Memento)? What Miller and Rodriguez seem most interested in is highlighting the principles of the genre to heightened effect. The hard-boiled monologues, the lighting, the role of the femme fatale, the plot twists. It’s all turned up a notch to heights of comedy. It becomes a joke for several reasons: nothing feels at stake because of the simple narrative and the film’s animated mise-en-scène distances violent acts from any notion of humanity. It all feels like some mean joke against civilization and a celebration of brutality. There’s no room for irony because there’s no sense of standard in Sin City beyond kill-or-be-killed/fuck-or-get-fucked. Characters are reduced to pixels in the worst way.
Ava (Eva Green), with her green eyes and red lips, is the femme fatal of the film’s title. Her acting and dialogue is played with so much loftiness, it’s hard no to laugh. The film’s biggest joke arrives when police detective Mort (Christopher Meloni) arrives to Ava’s home to investigate the murder of her husband. The chump falls for her as she purrs a few sly turns of phrase during the investigation, and he forgets his wife and his duty to “just the facts, ma’am.” The fact the “Law and Order: SVU” actor plays the detective adds a meta level of humor to the scene. But then he seems to be literally driven mad with lust. His reaction to his uncontrollable desires is so extreme it feels beyond implausible and falls with a grandiose thud.
A Dame to Kill For would have been so much more interesting had it been a deconstruction of film noir tropes instead of the celebration of them as bullet points to wink at. Typical of sequel syndrome, recurrent characters from the last movie have nowhere to grow from the last movie. Gail (Rosario Dawson) is still the same violent, pissed-off bitch. Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is reduced to a helpless ghost watching his ward Nancy (Jessica Alba) downward spiral in her thirst for vengeance. The most interesting character of the last film, Marv (Mickey Rourke) is nothing more than a bruiser with a memory lapse and no more heart.
The film’s most interesting new character is Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the bastard son of Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) who rules over the town with a corrupt fist. Played with an intense but warm bravado that Gordon-Levitt always so easily conjures up, Johnny at first doesn’t seem to understand just how over his head he’s in when he tries to beat Pop at poker. Johnny is on a quest for recognition that will come with heavier and heavier costs. It’s probably the one story line that veers far enough from genre convention that makes the film at least a little interesting. But by the time the final shootout arrives, it all becomes numbing and tired when it should have felt climactic.
It’s interesting that the performances that are less touched up by effects, which also includes some soul from Josh Brolin as another man who falls under Ava’s spell, are the ones that bring some interesting heart to the film. But with mostly flat characters and a sense of little at stake plot-wise, the inevitable fight scenes and gun battles are deflated of any sense of urgency. Sure the graphics are impressive. But the 3D offers little seeing as the film tries to stay true to the flat, hand-drawn quality of the comic book. Occasionally objects jump out of the screen in slow motion and some images stand out as lusciously stylistic, as when Ava floats in her pool in the nude. Otherwise, A Dame to Kill For is really nothing more than what you expect from the trailer: randomly colored actors moving across backgrounds driven by violent urges that shift at varying speeds to connote some sense of dimension but no real depth.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For runs 102 minutes and is Rated R (graphic sexuality and violence abounds). It opens everywhere today, Friday, Aug. 20. Weinstein Films invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.