In 2005, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller‘s Sin City was an interesting novelty. The directors were able to transfer Miller’s visually distinct comics to the screen through the heavy use of CGI. Not adapt; transfer. The comic was used as a storyboard, and the directors filled in the gaps by casting a bunch of recognizable actors to play the roles. For people who argue that adaptations should never stray from the source material, 2005’s Sin City was perfect. Although the novelty has run its course, Rodriguez and Miller are back nine years later with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, but the visual panache now feels like a crutch while also diminishing any authentic noir vibe the movie occasionally tries to convey. Although the sequel is occasionally enjoyable thanks to the actors who are in on the exaggerated tone, the film feels like it was made by a couple of teenagers who mistake whores for dames, sadists for toughs guys, and style for charm.
Like the first film, A Dame to Kill For features three stories that take place in “Sin City” (technically, it’s “Basin City”, but no one calls it that). One features Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a gambler whose mind is on a bigger score than money; another features the stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba) aiming to avenge the death of Hartigan (Bruce Willis); and the “Dame to Kill For” is Eva (Eva Green), a scheming seductress who has Dwight (Josh Brolin) wrapped around her finger. The stories are loosely connected by tough guy Marv (Mickey Rourke) and the villainous Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), both of whom function like blunt instruments in a world filled with sex, murder, narration, and people falling out of windows.
Perhaps it’s because I read Sin City before seeing the first film that I was almost distracted by how faithfully the movie followed the graphic novels. Having mostly forgotten the books nine years later, I was now willing to accept a Sin City movie on its own merits. While I’m glad A Dame to Kill For has two original stories (only the Dwight/Eva plotline is from the book of the same name), they still feel like they came from the comics, and if that’s what you want, you’ll be satisfied. There’s no reason Rodriguez and Miller should depart from the tone they’ve created except that the tone is tedious and self-congratulatory.
It’s difficult to tell how much the directors are in on the joke. They occasionally seem to be aware of their highly stylized world and how that can give way to goofy results, especially as far as the violence is concerned. Plenty of nameless henchman and bodyguards are decapitated, impaled, gunned down, but it’s fairly tame since the black-and-white palette makes blood look like milk. The directors seem enamored of their violence to the point where they’re once again happy to bring in Miho (Jamie Chung), who shoots arrows and wields a samurai sword just because. Rodriguez and Miller have no problem breaking their devotion to a noir tone if it means a hot girl can jump ten feet in the air and decapitate four guys.
The cheap regard for human life could almost be considered macabre if the directors clearly weren’t taking so much glee in the cartoonish violence. They seem to be working under the belief that violence is fun except when it’s time to get serious and human life now has value even though we’re constantly being told how cheap it is in Sin City (probably because people can run around with samurai swords and the senator spends all of his time being corrupt rather than doing any government work). Rodriguez and Miller want to put noir on steroids, but that’s now how the genre works. Noir is already exaggerated, but it’s with an air of tragedy. The directors want the sex and violence with only a cheap nod to pathos.
Surprisingly, that approach works for a little while. After the movie begins with a little prologue where Marv kills a bunch of sadistic frat boys because Marv is a badass or something, A Dame to Kill For launches into its first story, which features Johnny. Gordon-Levitt has so much charm and charisma that he lures us into believing this is a real movie with characters worth caring about. Johnny would be at home in a real noir, but he’s stuck in a movie where breaking fingers is done because it’s cool and yet another reminder that Sin City is an awful place where only powerful sadists like Marv and Roark are happy.
By the time we’re lugging ourselves through Dwight and Nancy’s storylines, we’ve already gotten the joke. Put alongside his Machete movies, Rodriguez shows that his ideas are better suited to short films. Less than halfway through, A Dame to Kill For is running on fumes and we’re laughing at it rather than with it. The movie seems more concerned with showing Eva Green naked rather than forging anything close to a genuine relationship with Dwight. The movie is too self-conscious to be parody and too childish to be taken seriously.
The story’s simple-mindedness is made abundantly clear with the movie’s treatment towards women. The only women in Sin City are strippers, whores, and dupes. But when it comes to the strippers and the whores, Rodriguez and Miller believe these women are empowered if you just load them up with weapons and let them go on killing sprees. As for Eva, she could be a parody of the femme fatale except not only is Green playing an exaggerated archetype, but the filmmakers make her nude for almost a majority of her screen time. They seem to be operating under the impression that Eva owns her sexuality and is using it as a weapon, but her nudity always feels like a service to the horny men in the audience rather than a commanding presence that demands respect. The same goes for the whores of old town. You can dress them up in dominatrix outfits, but that’s for the pleasure of the male audience, not the empowerment of the characters.
For all of its overwrought touches, I don’t think Rodriguez and Miller are creating a satire. There’s too much care in making the visuals look cool rather than understanding what those images convey. The hard-boiled dialogue is at odds with narratives built around sex and violence that’s made to be titillating rather than dangerous. There are funny lines, entertaining kills, and other little amusements scattered throughout, but Sin City is a playground, and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is already played out before the dame even enters the picture.