“There’s no reason to leave anyone alive. No one’s innocent.” This sentiment, expressed matter-of-factly by the hulking urban golem “Marv” (Mickey Rourke), comes pretty close to encapsulating the narrative philosophy of the Sin City movies. In the first, released in 2005, two of the three chief protagonists were dead by the rolling of the credits. In the new installment, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For—well, let’s just say that once again not all the endings are happy ones.
The films, directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller (who wrote the graphic novels on which they’re based), are an exercise in going noirer than noir, in achieving a state of darkness so absolute that it could be, to borrow a phrase, none more black. It’s not a terribly profound ambition, but it’s one that offers its pleasures.
Like its predecessor, A Dame to Kill For is based on a few lightly entangled tales from Miller’s Sin City canon, this time with a couple of new stories thrown in. Some of the plotlines take place before the other film and some after, lending the movie an enjoyably elastic quality as simultaneous sequel and prequel. The dynamic signature visuals—high-contrast black and white, with occasional splashes of decadent color—are back, and the cast is again first-rate. Indeed, there are a handful of ways in which A Dame to Kill For actually improves on the first movie. Alas, none are enough to prevent the film from being a substantial disappointment.
Begin with the good. The single most special effect of the original Sin City was its widespread introduction of Mickey Rourke 2.0 as Marv, a slab of prehistoric humanity—Miller once described the character as “Conan in a trenchcoat”—who could have flossed his teeth with the lithe, electric young performer from whom he had somehow devolved. Though A Dame to Kill For makes less memorable use of Rourke, his tectonic presence is nonetheless a welcome one. Bruce Willis also returns as Detective Hartigan, though this time in a small, supporting role. And a close-cropped Josh Brolin proves a significant upgrade over the first movie’s floppy-locked Clive Owen in the role of Dwight, the franchise’s romantic crusader. New on the scene is a cocky young gambler played by a characteristically appealing Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and rounding out the cast are Powers Boothe (fittingly reprehensible in an expanded role as Senator-cum-kingpin Roarke), Dennis Haysbert (filling in for the late Michael Clark Duncan), Ray Liotta, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, and Christopher Lloyd. Plus, in an entirely too-tiny role, Stacy Keach, who even at 73 merits a Sin City installment all to himself.
Perhaps the movie’s most pleasant surprise is that, unlike its predecessor, it offers its female characters the opportunity to serve as more than merely a rationale for male vendettas. This time out, the stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold, Nancy (Jessica Alba), is empowered by Hartigan’s ghost to take her own vengeance—though it must be noted that, sadly, Alba’s vigilantism is as lackluster as her earlier victimhood. Eva Green by contrast…
All calculated sensuality and dangerous curves, Green owns this installment of Sin City as surely as Rourke did the last one, replacing his self-consciously retrograde masculinity with a femme fatality so knowing and over-the-top that it flirts with satire. Her emerald eyes, ruby lips, and sapphire dress (on those occasions when she is, in fact, clothed) may pierce the monochromatic screen, but it is her canny mashup of cinematic seductresses from Jane Greer to Sharon Stone that offers the movie’s principal compensations.
One could argue that A Dame to Kill For pays excessive attention to Green’s unclad form, and one would not be wrong. But this is, remarkably, among the movie’s few notable excesses. The first Sin City offered a Grand Guignol parade of hardboiled horrors: cannibalism, conversations with (mostly) decapitated heads, and the all-too-vivid mashing of a yellow-skinned sex criminal’s private parts. At the time, I did not consider these elements to be among the movie’s primary appeals. But they were, for better or worse, memorable. By contrast, the dutifully stylized ultraviolence of A Dame to Kill For—the beatings and shootings and finger-breakings and eyeball-gougings—comes across as rather mundane.
There are certain ways in which a Sin City sequel—especially one so long delayed—was perhaps destined to disappoint. The visual panache that was so stunning in 2005 has inevitably lost much of its force in the intervening decade. The labored, tough-guy diction (second-rate Spillane, or fourth-rate Chandler) has grown no better over time. And it was easy to imagine that A Dame to Kill For would try to one-up the original, to push the envelope of perversity in some fresh and jarring (if likely unsuccessful) way. Instead, Rodriguez and Miller have erred in the opposite direction, offering up a movie that feels timid, half-hearted, eager to play it safe. The former path might have been a mistake. This one feels almost like a betrayal.