‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’ hits a campy sweet spot
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Written by Frank Miller
Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller
Unlikely as it may have seemed, 2014 has emerged as the year where, among other things, Eva Green proved to be the best part of a rock-dumb green screen sequel film. First there was her turn in 300: Rise of an Empire, and now comes Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. She is the eponymous “dame,” Ava Lord, a character so rigidly crafted to the femme fatale archetype as to be a cartoon. Of course, that goes for all the characters in this series, as they are portrayed both in these films and in the comic book series on which they are based. The cast also overflows with corrupt politicians, brassy whores, and down-on-their-luck antiheroes suffering apparent vocal fry, with a towering black manservant and a mute Asian assassin thrown in for good measure. Even moreso than the original movie, A Dame to Kill For is extraordinarily broad. It’s absolutely hilarious, and only on purpose perhaps a quarter of the time.
I mean, this is a movie that actually has the word “dame” in its title. And Green plays a dame through and through, exulting in breathy whispers and devilish looks. She fully commits to the role of a female sexuality weaponized as played out in the imagination of men who fear female agency (*cough*FrankMiller*cough*). She’s a far cry from making a mark as a Stanwyck/Astor/Gardner classic, since the story allows her absolutely zero chance to demonstrate any semblance of depth. This film plays in the sandbox of noir tropes while doing nothing new with them.
The same could be said of the first Sin City, but that had a few things going for it — its aesthetic was fresh at the time, and its hardboiled remix universe held some charm. But the vignettes that make up this new installment have much less of the spark of its predecessor’s. The mini-story that acts as the namesake for the whole film is the only halfway decent one, likely because it’s based on a comic that Frank Miller wrote back when he still had talent, while the other two are modern originals. “The Long Bad Night,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a cocky gambler, is an astonishingly pointless yarn. “Nancy’s Last Dance,” featuring Jessica Alba’s vengeance-minded stripper, wallows in wheel-spinning for a long time before devolving into a lackluster assault on a mansion. In fact, around 60% of this film’s action consists of assaults on mansions. It gets old.
“A Dame to Kill For,” which has Josh Brolin taking over for the character Clive Owen played in the original film, sees him squaring off against Green as his old flame. It’s no Chandler, but it keeps things at a fun clip, bouncing around Basin City as the protagonist’s fortunes constantly shift. It’s also the most intentionally funny segment of the movie, which helps.
When A Dame to Kill For springs to life, it’s either thanks to a performance that hits a campy sweet spot (mostly from Green, although Powers Boothe, Rosario Dawson, Ray Liotta, and Christopher Meloni have their moments) or a moment of honest-to-god stylistic flourish. Too often, filmmakers don’t take advantage of the opportunities offered by green screen shooting, but scattered scenes here engage. Mickey Rourke’s Marv pieces an amnesiac night back together while a rendering of his memory orbits his head like cartoon dizzy birds. Whenever Green’s Ava Lord enters a room, smoke and steam hangs suspended and static in the air. While the film is in black and white, there are sporadic appearances of color, though almost none of them hold any real meaning (one exception being how Ava’s eyes turn a poisonous, reptilian green after her true nature has been revealed). The comic book visual style is what sets Sin City apart from other noir imitators, so it’s a shame directors Miller and Robert Rodriguez don’t make better use of it.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a stall. It trots back a lot of characters who died in the first film via timeline rejiggering (or, in Bruce Willis’ case, his character appearing as a hallucination/ghost) for no real reason other than cutesiness or because they were popular. That’s the only reason Marv is still popping up, though his presence is not unwelcome. Since each segment in this movie is just an excuse for stylized nastiness, the fact that the nastiness is all samey and unremarkable drags it down, though the actors who are having doofy fun manage to float it just above worthlessness.