Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)
Monday, August 25, 2014 at 07:35AM
Ian Simmons in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For [2014]

Shades of Great

If you're like most Americans, you didn't see Sin City: A Dame to Kill For last weekend. It failed spectacularly at the box office, and is on track to be one of Summer 2014's biggest bombs. Whether due to poor marketing, a critical clobbering, or nine years having passed between predecessor and sequel, moviegoers stayed away in droves. That's a damn shame, 'cause there's more to love here than in the original.

Based on the comics series by Frank Miller, who wrote the screenplay and co-directed with Robert Rodriguez, both films are chronologically challenged anthologies that take place in the world's most corrupt town. The high end is run by a dynasty of scumbag politicians and clergymen, and the low end bows to a cabal of costumed assassins who moonlight as prostitutes (or is it the other way around?). In the middle is Kadie's Bar, where a big, ugly brute named Marv (Mickey Rourke) drinks, ogles strippers, and welcomes excuses to bash people's skulls in.

Like the comics, 2005's Sin City used Marv as our gateway into Miller's neo-noir universe. The best parts focused on a bloody revenge mission against the powerful entities that murdered his would-be girlfriend. Unfortunately, Miller and Rodriguez rounded out their run-time with two lesser adaptations from the canon--resulting in a feature-length technical and narrative exercise that, as a story, came off as repetitive and too long by at least thirty minutes.

It didn't help that almost every actor involved had trouble distinguishing between the high camp of a "comic-book movie" and the down 'n dirty noir delivery Miller captured so effortlessly on the page. The women either lacked affectation or impersonated Betty Boop; the men mostly strived for seen-it-all detachment but came off as third-rate Batman impersonators Sure, Bruce Willis and Clive Owen have the right look, but their delivery was flatter than day-old root beer.

In the nine years since Sin City bowled over critics and comics fans, the comic-book movie has been seriously upgraded in the public consciousness. With camp-free heavy-hitters like The Dark Knight and Guardians of the Galaxy proving that relatable characters navigating multi-layered plots are as important (if not more so) than dazzling special effects, the stakes couldn't be higher for Miller's style of storytelling--which faces the added challenge of being a throwback to art forms (pulp novels, black-and-white movies) that modern audiences either despise or can't accept as having ever been real.

I was relieved to find that A Dame to Kill For ups the ante in special effects, screenplay, and performances. The movie is far from perfect, and would benefit from the axing of a superfluous prologue and a downright snoozer of a third segment. But the centerpiece--a flashback involving private investigator Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin, taking over for Owen) and his ex-girlfriend-turned-millionaire's-wife, Ava (Eva Green*)--is one of the coolest, most effective pieces of entertainment I've seen this year. Another story, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a gambler whose luck changes when he takes on Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), offers a pristine example of the tragicomic tapestry Miller weaves in his comics.

These segments work for a few reasons. The first is Green. Never mind that the actress spends more time out of clothes than in them, her real triumph is painting Ava Lord as the quintessential temptress and manipulator. She's the smartest person to have ever appeared in a Sin City film--a calculating and self-aware genius in a town overrun by impulse-driven savages whose survival instincts invariably skew towards mere violence. Ava enjoys playing with men to get what she wants; the evil intelligence and flashes of madness in Green's eyes make it easy to understand how so many guys could make so many stupid decisions while trying to please her.

As her counterpart, Brolin nails the archetypical Sin City man's man, which, I'd wager, Miller and Rodriguez had hoped to bring to life a decade ago. His narration evokes the precise voice I heard in my head when reading Miller's comics in high school--all gravel, regret, and pent-up savagery. Even when Dwight's storyline heads south (following facial-reconstruction that makes him look like an action figure mash-up of Clive Owen and George W. Bush), Brolin's commitment to treating the character as a character--and not a plaything between "serious" projects--makes this chapter indelible.

Another stand-out is Dennis Haysbert, filling in for the late Michael Clarke Duncan. He's a leaner actor than his predecessor, and his face doesn't immediately scream "trouble". This works in his character's favor, as he plays Ava Lord's brutish bodyguard with the understated calm of a man quietly comfortable in his own lethality. The change-up of performers actually works perfectly considering how, story-wise, the character becomes a different person between films.

Sadly, A Dame to Kill For unravels in the third act, as we catch up with Nancy (Jessica Alba), the stripper who fell in love with Bruce Willis' character in the first movie. He killed himself to throw Roark off her scent, and now she harbors an alcohol-fueled vendetta against the seemingly untouchable senator. For starters, Alba is simply not well-rounded enough as a performer to pull off the heartbroken, hearing-voices lunatic type. She's more movie star than actress, and that's perfectly fine--except when I'm asked to watch her stretch and fall short at the end of an otherwise stellar showcase.

Second, Nancy's story dredges up the worst aspects of the series: how many times must we watch people sneak through the woods to attack what should be a fortified compound, in order to assassinate the Big Bad? Miller tries to imbue Nancy with some modicum of character growth, but no one cares whether or not she'll win battle with booze and kill Roark. Of course she will. This is Sin City. No need for twenty minutes of Black Swan crazy talk.

The film ends abruptly, with another CGI spin-out of buildings that forms the Sin City logo. Unlike the striking red opening credits, the closing letters are dim and gray--as if Rodriguez and Miller ran out of juice to power the lights. I know, this began as a somewhat glowing recommendation. Now you're probably wondering how I can justify asking you to see A Dame to Kill For in the theatre. I'll go you one further, and endorse seeing it in 3D.

Just as most people stayed away from Dredd a couple years ago, and subsequently kicked themselves when word of mouth made it a home-video sensation, A Dame to Kill For really benefits from the big-screen, multi-dimensional experience. Rodriguez and the gang at Troublemaker Studios have outdone themselves this time. From the layered, perspective-enhanced translation of Miller's black-and-white drawings in the opening credits; to the steam that envelopes a hot-tubbing Ava Lord like Medusa's snakes; and Dwight's nasty fall out an apartment window, there's no shortage of detail to appreciate. I could tell that the filmmakers were invested in making these stories tangible for audiences, just as Miller is with his readers.

We can probably agree that most sequels are unnecessary. In the case of Sin City, its follow-up is essential. Miller and Rodriguez burst out of the gate nine years ago with a comics film that, collectively, we didn't know could be outdone in the genre. Its groundbreaking digital artistry booted panels off the page, and the nearly unprecedented violence helped reassert that some comics weren't just not for kids--they were positively child-restricted.

But it was a silly movie, a macho cartoon with aspirations of weight. A Dame to Kill For, by contrast, is a study in lessons learned--a film that could not have existed as a rushed sequel half a decade ago, despite ardent calls from fans. Like the titular town, the picture has its awesome parts, its bad parts, and its unspeakably dreadful parts. There are no shortcuts through Sin City, but some of its attractions are more than worth the trip.

*Oddly enough, this is the second long-in-the-tooth sequel based on a Frank Miller property to come out this year. The first was 300: Rise of an Empire. Both starred Green, and she is the driving, charismatic force behind both films.

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