Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller
Stars: Bruce Willis, Christopher Meloni, Dennis Haysbert, Eva Green, Jaime King, Jamie Chung, Jeremy Piven, Jessica Alba, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin, Julia Garner, Mickey Rourke, Powers Boothe, Rosario Dawson
Released: 22nd August 2014 (UK)
In the spring of 2005 my newly minted eighteen year-old self highly anticipated director Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of the Frank Miller comic Sin City. Keep in mind this was a world before Christopher Nolan’s genre re-defining Batman Begins or Zack Snyder’s influential visual stylings of 300 and so to see something so inherently original in its take on both aesthetic and story was exciting even if I wasn’t familiar with the source material. Add on to that the fact Rodriguez enlisted the creator of the comic book as his co-director and gathered up an expansive cast that included Bruce Willis, Benecio Del Toro, Clive Owen, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Brittany Murphy, Michael Madsen, Powers Boothe and the first interesting role Mickey Rourke had taken in some time (essentially the one that made him cool again) and you had something people were generally intrigued by. Almost a decade later though and the anticipation for any such follow-up to the film has long since faded and thus the original would have likely survived best if left alone rather than trying to return to the days of former glory with a sequel that doesn’t really expand the world of the titular environment as much as it gives us the same things we were treated to the first time around, only this time with less of a punch to the gut. Less punch because we’ve seen them before, less surprise because we know the characters better, more of the same because we realize the characters weren’t as developed as our first impression led us to believe. In short, the sequel more or less points out the flaws of the world in which it exists rather than enhancing or expanding the universe the original set-up and when a sequel does this it only makes its existence feel all the more forced than necessary. There are of course a few redeemable aspects here, the stark visuals still elicit a certain mood and look stunning on the big screen and the addition of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his storyline is engaging and deserved more screen time, but these aren’t enough to spice up what is overall rather boring and a flat narrative. There will always be a certain nostalgia for the original Sin City given it’s place in time and my stage of life when it was released, but if there was any hope A Dame to Kill For might do the same, re-create those feelings, or even spark interest in eighteen year-olds today those hopes were dashed when Rourke’s narration began and the style was more cloak and pattern than function to deepen story or theme.
The problem I have in gauging how to react to A Dame to Kill For though is that I truly believe Rodriguez felt he was creating something more than what has appeared on screen. Rodriguez, who is certainly in a filmmaking rut at the moment, sees this world as a mythic piece of architecture where the buildings ooze with as many stories as the individuals walking in and out of them. He sees the aura surrounding the smoke-filled air as something of an unattainable reality and thus creates it as a fully-digital world where only the lower than scum inhabitants are able to be portrayed by mere mortals. What Rodriguez doesn’t seem able to transfer from this line of thinking to the screen though is not necessarily the level of ambition it would take to pull off making such untouchable ideas a reality, but the raw elements of what makes this great enough to be considered a myth of epic proportions. There is story here, several in fact, that have been woven together from both Frank Miller’s comics and original stories he wrote exclusively for this film, but none of which really hit the deep, dark tone of the Yellow Bastard storyline from the first film. Like Rodriguez’s lackluster sequel last year, Machete Kills, his sequel to Sin City suffers from being more of a cheap knock-off of what inspired it rather than an authentic piece of film noir from which it clearly draws its inspirations. It has all the makings of those low-key, black and white crime thrillers as it shoves its cynical attitude down your throat, but never does it seem to come off as more than actors playing around in a fun manner of mimicry than it does a bleak, tense situation involving any number of the tropes typically associated with the genre. While the feelings of affection for Sin City have yet to subside for Rodriguez or Miller it is their execution of this sequel that seems to spell they have nothing fresh or interesting left to say within the constraints of its world even if they’d like to. The stories we’re presented with here deal simply in corruption and revenge with only Gordon-Leveitt’s Johnny story dealing in an interesting way of conveying the simple theme.
A mixed bag of stories set before and after the events of the first film that come together in no form or fashion only re-enforces the idea that these films would have been better presented as a collection of shorts than broken narratives over a two-hour period. Johnny (Gordon-Levitt) is set to have a long, bad night when he arrives in Sin City looking to make some money while seeking revenge for reasons at first undisclosed to the audience. He swings smoothly into Kadie’s Place where Nancy (Jessica Alba) is still dancing and Marv (Mickey Rourke) is still watching. Johnny is quick to hit a few jackpots, pick up a lady luck in the form of a waitress (Julia Garner) and buy his way into the backroom poker game that involves corrupt Senator Roarke (Powers Booth). Johnny never loses and he doesn’t plan on starting now which might only result in bad things if he makes the Senator look like a fool in front of impressionable people. On the other side of things is the story taken from the subtitle in which Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin taking over for Clive Owen) is pulled back into his love affair with the now married Ava Lord (Eva Green) in an effort to free her from circumstances she may or may not have fabricated in order to put herself one step ahead. Long before the events of the original film Dwight was looking to put his past behind him leading the life of a private detective and passing on the drink. It is when Ava comes back into his life that he begins to retread to the state of being he swore to leave behind allowing himself to be taken by her affections resulting in a determination to fight those he has no chance of defeating including Manute (Dennis Haysbert taking over Michael Clarke Duncan’s role) who punishes Dwight to the extent his face must be reconstructed. Rosario Dawson and Jamie Chung (taking over for Devon Aoki) are thrown in for good measure as the girls of Old Town while Christopher Meloni and Jeremy Piven also pop up as detectives on the case of Ava’s deceased husband. All of this book-ended by Nancy’s plight to avenge Hartigan’s (Bruce Willis) death and kill Senator Roarke.
There is a line near the end of the film that Rourke’s Marv utters as he and Nancy break into Senator Roarke’s mansion in order to set-up a climactic gun battle that goes something like, “There’s no reason to leave anyone alive. No one’s innocent.” It is the only piece of dialogue that made me sit up and think about the mentality of the characters I was watching act out on screen. It made me realize that nothing prior in the film made me feel anything or even worse had engaged me enough to make me really care about the amount of death and pain I was seeing be displayed by these individuals. As I said earlier, I enjoyed the story of Gordon-Levitt’s Johnny more than any other in the film because it wasn’t simply a straight-forward tale of revenge, but an interesting way to slyly convey the need to overcome someone you despise and Gordon-Levitt gives a fine, measured performance in that role. All of that said, when his character meets his stories conclusion I can’t say that I felt anything more than understanding because it was congruent with the kind of world Miller has created. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the film because Miller’s cynical, violent creation holds no joy (it doesn’t) but because these people, even the most despicable ones, aren’t as interesting as they seem to be on the surface. As we come to know them, their history, their motivations and their desires we don’t really care about them or what they want to do because it can only be met with a certain level of expectation. I’m not mad at the film because it has no light at the end of the tunnel, I understand that is the point of this hell on earth, but when such vile or bland characters are met with uninspiring stories there is even less to get excited about no matter how much style and flash is infused into its presentation. It isn’t as easy as slapping Sin City: A Dame to Kill For with the label of style over substance because there is indeed a fair amount of substance here, the downfall is simply that it isn’t engaging enough to make us care.
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