When Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's Sin City was released in 2005, almost everything about it felt fresh, new and exciting. It made exceptionally creative use of the green screen format (following in the footsteps of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to create a fully realized retro-pulp world on a mid-level budget), it offered incredibly striking black-and-white imagery enhanced by occasional bursts of vivid color and it fully captured reckless, violent energy of Miller's “noir on steroids” graphic novels. Never before had there been a comic book movie that felt quite so much like a comic book.
I was head-over-heels in love with Sin City at the time, but I have to admit that the film's sheen has faded with time and repeat viewings. Maybe it's that the collection of stories beneath the thrilling sensory experience are ultimately fairly thin; a lot of postures and colorful character designs tossed into a noir-themed blender. Maybe it's that the once-groundbreaking visual techniques the film employed seem fairly routine after a decade of films abusing green screen technology. The most likely answer is that I was twenty years old then, and have since become a cantankerous old man who hates fun things. As such, I'll understand if you take my general apathy towards Sin City: A Dame to Kill For – the long-delayed sequel/prequel that finally made it to the big screen in 2014 – with a grain of salt. Still, I must report what I sincerely believe to be true: this is a considerably messier, far less satisfying feature than its predecessor.
Like the original film, A Dame to Kill For offers a brief prologue and three full-blown stories. We kick things off with “Just Another Saturday Night,” which gives us a chance to spend a little more time with Marv, that magnificent, hulking brute played so memorably by Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler). It's not much of a story, really – we're mostly just watching Marv murder some frat boy punks – but it's a modest pleasure to see Rourke return to the role that marked the start of his Hollywood comeback.
Unfortunately, two of the three stories that follow are clunkers. First up is “A Long Bad Night,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Walk) as a cocky young gambler who decides to challenge the powerful, corrupt Senator Rourke (Powers Boothe, Deadwood) at the poker table. While Boothe seethes and snarls in memorably threatening fashion (the man has one of the nastiest grins in Hollywood), the story is a disappointingly simplistic, predictable affair that spends the bulk of its time punishing Gordon-Levitt for his arrogant foolishness. The tale is split into two parts (using the “A Dame to Kill For” segment as an intermission), which seems like an attempt to mask the fact that it has nothing to say other than, “don't mess with Powers Boothe.”
The worst segment is “Nancy's Last Dance,” a thoroughly dreadful sequel to the original's “The Yellow Bastard.” It seems that stripper Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba, Machete) is suffering from severe depression. She's been trying to work up the nerve to murder Senator Rourke – the source of much of her misery – but hasn't been able to go through with it. So, she turns to Marv and her old pal John Hartigan (Bruce Willis, Die Hard) for help. Isn't Hartigan dead? Yes, but now he's a ghost who occasionally pops up to tell Nancy that he's sorry for being dead and that he wishes she would stop thinking about suicide. Willis was affectingly world-weary in Sin City, but this time around he turns in the sort of, “yeah, I'm here but don't expect me to act” performance he seems content to deliver so often these days. It's a clumsy revenge tale that exemplifies the film at its absolute worst; strip-mining nostalgia for its predecessor rather than committing itself to doing something new and interesting. It's unsurprising to discover that both “Nancy's Last Dance” and “A Long Bad Night” are brand-new stories written for the film, while the others are based on pre-existing works from a richer period of Miller's career.
Still, it would be a lie to say the film is a complete disaster. There's a reason “A Dame to Kill For” is the segment the film is named after: it's easily the best thing the movie has to offer; a piece of gloriously overheated noir melodrama that occasionally reminds you of how much fun you had with this stuff the first time around. Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) plays Dwight, a private investigator who ends up getting lured back into a dangerous relationship with his exceedingly complicated ex-girlfriend Ava Lord (Eva Green, Penny Dreadful). Green has made a habit of being the best thing about a lot of movies she's appeared in, and this is no exception: she's perfectly in tune with Miller's “take a standard noir character and dial it up to 11” method of storytelling, giving us a magnificently exaggerated version of a classic femme fatale. Green spends most of her screen time in various stages of undress, but as usual, it's her eyes – blazing bright green orbs accentuated by crimson lips - that grab your attention. Whenever she's onscreen, the film is everything it should be.
Alas, “A Dame to Kill For” is also the segment that suffers from the most distracting bits of re-casting. While there's an explanation provided for why this version of Dwight looks different from the one Clive Owen played in Sin City, there's a flat-out dreadful bit of makeup work towards the end that makes you wish they had either gotten Owen back for a cameo or reworked the tale's ending. You also have Dennis Haysbert (Far From Heaven) filling in for the late Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) as the villainous Manute. Haysbert's a better actor than Duncan was, but doesn't manage to project the same sort of mirthful menace.
There's another gallery of colorful supporting players littered throughout the film, but none of them are as memorable as say, Elijah Wood's silent killer or Nick Stahl's Yellow Bastard. Ray Liotta (Goodfellas) pops up as a corrupt public official, Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future) hams it up as a low-rent surgeon, Jeremy Piven (Entourage) and Christopher Meloni (White Bird in a Blizzard) appear as cops, Juno Temple (The Dark Knight Rises) plays a hooker and Lady Gaga (American Horror Story: Hotel) plays a waitress. None of these folks make much of an impression, though there is a grotesquely memorable bit involving Stacy Keach (Lights Out) as a politician who looks like a disease-ridden ogre.
Rodriguez and Miller are once again credited as co-directors, and as surprising as it may seem, Miller's presence seems to have inspired Rodriguez to up his game a little. While a lot of Rodriguez's recent works have felt amateurishly clumsy, there are portions of A Dame to Kill For that remind you of the slick hotshot he once was. Even so, it's a good deal messier on a technical level than its predecessor, and leans too heavily on the sort of flashy gimmicks that spiced up the first one. The score was co-written by Rodriguez and Carl Thiel, and though it repurposes a number of thematic ideas from the first score, the absence of Sin City co-composers John Debney and Graeme Revell can certainly be felt. It's a cheaper, less focused riff on music that sounded rich and cool the first time. For the most part, the same applies to the film as a whole.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Year: 2014