Walking out of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, I kept coming back to the same question: was the first Sin City really that bad? It’s been years since I saw Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s first adaptation of Miller’s pulpy noir comics, which came out in 2005 and used green-screen technology to render his panels as faithfully as possible and unite a starry cast without them ever having to even meet on set. I was never a huge fan of the 2005 Sin City, even as a college student who didn’t know any better, but I know I didn’t walk out of the theater feeling as nasty as I did with A Dame to Kill For.
The sequel is so demonstrably similar: over-the-top, thuddingly obvious narration throughout; exaggerated action that sees people constantly thrown through windows, blasted apart with guns and dismembered with samurai swords; faint homage to the great ‘40s noir films mixed with thick, sludgy, violent pulp nonsense to amp the violence and sex to 11 every time. The first Sin City drew almost exclusively from Miller’s comics, framing its narrative around three of his stories; this one adapts only one of his illustrated tales (the titular “A Dame to Kill For”) and adds a lot of original material, also written by Miller. That may be where the biggest problem lies.
We follow three broad storylines that occasionally cross over, set within the ridiculously corrupt Basin City, where one neighborhood is run by gun-toting prostitutes, everywhere else is controlled by the corrupt Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), and people are seemingly getting into gunfights every five minutes. One thread sees a young gambler (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seeking to best Roark at cards; another follows Dwight (Josh Brolin, playing Clive Owen’s role from the first movie) as he’s sucked into a web of intrigue by his old lover Ava Lord (Eva Green); and finally, we see bruiser Marv (Mickey Rourke) assist the haunted stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba) in avenging the death of Hartigan (Bruce Willis), who died in the first movie protecting her and now stalks around behind her in ghostly form.
To call Sin City noir is to misunderstand the genre, as perhaps Miller does. Each story ends pretty simply—in brutal fighting and murder—and lacks genuine intrigue or ambiguity. Pretty much everyone’s either a noble hero or a heartless villain, particularly the female characters, who are largely portrayed as innocent angels that need protecting or soul-sucking succubae who use sex to serve their ambitions. Everyone’s either selling their body or punching people, so obviously the normal rules of morality don’t apply, but every plot plays out like a pulpy Greek tragedy. At best, our heroes survive with buckets of blood on their hands; at worst, they can take some small comfort in their silly accomplishments before they expire.
The whole experience feels grindingly pointless, especially if you’ve already seen Sin City. There’s nothing particularly profound about anything—Roark gets the most screen-time, but he’s just a pitiless black hole of a non-character, a stand-in for every venal politician and rich man that Miller wants to shake his fist at. Boothe at least understands how shark-like and inhuman he should be, and Green fills out her comic book femme fatale profile well (although she mostly makes you wish you could see her in a real noir flick). Everyone else struggles to nail the tone and comes off like they’re play-acting. In a green-screen universe, it’s hard to make the punches feel like they’re landing.
It’s been a long time since Miller was a top-grade comic book writer (his willingness to be vocal about his personal politics have not helped his reputation recently) and the Sin City books, which came out in the ‘90s, are a long time removed from his current work. At the same time, it’s not so simple to say that the new material is obviously worse than the old one. “A Dame to Kill For,” based on one of his Dark Horse Comics opuses, is plotted with screeching obviousness. There’s a betrayal anyone could see coming from a mile away; the bad guys seem to operate just out of a sense of evil, without any depth at all. Of the original tales, Gordon-Levitt’s is better, because all the fuss that ensues over a poker game seems appropriately pointless. Meanwhile, the attempt to wrap up Nancy’s tale from the first film renders Hartigan’s sacrifice useless and suggests that the best way to get anything done, no matter how powerful your target, is just to buy a bunch of guns and shoot people with them. I don’t object to the pulpy violence, I object to the blunt simplicity.
It’s hard to fault what Rodriguez is doing visually, but at the same time, the thrill of the gimmick has definitely faded. Since Sin City, we’ve suffered through two 300s and Zack Snyder’s wretched but faithful take on Alan Moore’s Watchmen—all were crisp and technically well-done, echoing a visual style long thought difficult to translate, but were very lacking in other ways. I remember wincing as I hear Moore’s Watchmen dialogue, which I held so dear to my heart, intoned to us in voice-over. It sounded miserably bad and overwrought when spoken aloud. Faithfulness to a comic book, essentially, should focus more on nailing the vibe than obeying the will of the writer and artist. Their work will endure no matter what; Sin City: A Dame to Kill For will likely be forgotten, even by Miller’s fans, very quickly.